FORT MYERS, Fla. - It was the kind of day that is known to occur once or twice this time of year. The flags in centerfield were pointing out of the ballpark and the temperature was struggling to stay in the 50s and the guys on the mound were no longer pitching like they were ahead of the hitters. Up and down the Gulf Coast of Florida, long fly balls screamed out of stadiums like tracers on an overcast sky.
Back in Clearwater, Domonic Brown and Ryan Howard both launched pitches into the heart of the jet stream, the latter's home run looking for an instant like it might drop a surprise on the hood of one of the unwitting blue hairs who were matriculating their vehicles up the highway that runs behind the rightfield wall.
In short, Sunday was the kind of day that no pitcher wants on his permanent record when it comes time for roster cuts. But if this year was like any of the last 4, Kyle Kendrick would have exited his outing against the Orioles with plenty of ammunition for the anxiety that can plague even the strongest of wills when there is a job on the line.
The 28-year-old righthander did not pitch as poorly as his final line might suggest, allowing a couple of singles and a couple of wind-aided home runs in a four-batter stretch before retiring five of the final six batters he faced, three via groundout, one via popup, and one via strikeout. Still, when one of the five or six outings that you will get to prove yourself ends with a 4-0 deficit, you can't help but wonder.
This year, Kendrick does not have anything to ponder. For the first time since 2008, the only thing that can keep him out of the Phillies' Opening Day rotation is an injury. That might seem like a little thing, but for a pitcher who has had as little stability as a 5-year veteran can possibly enjoy, the difference is noticeable.
"I'm not going to lie, it's nice," Kendrick said on Sunday afternoon after wrapping up a two-inning start against the Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. "But you still have to get your work in. You're still working on things. But it's obviously a different feeling for me."
The arc of Kendrick's career is rare for a player on a perennial World Series contender. In October of 2008, after a year-and-a-half in the majors, the Phillies did not include him on their playoff roster because of his struggles during the season. For many young pitchers on a team that was just beginning a rapid expansion of payroll in an effort to upgrade its talent, that October would have been the end. Yet, 4 years later, Kendrick and Cole Hamels are the only pitchers who have remained from that 2008 squad. (Reliever Chad Durbin returned this winter after a 2-year absence.)
Joe Blanton, J.A. Happ, Pedro Martinez, Vance Worley, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt - all have come and gone (and, in Lee's case, come again). Kendrick has weathered the steady barrage of candidates meant to replace him by engaging in a process that we often forget is still a part of the game at the major league level: improvement.
The work he devoted to the development of a changeup, cutter and slider from 2009 through '11 paid off in a big way last season as his strikeout rate jumped from a career average of 4.1 Ks per nine innings to 6.6 K/9 without a sizable increase in his other rate stats. He appeared in 37 games, 25 as a starter, logging 159 1/3 innings and going 11-12 with a 3.90 ERA. Kendrick allowed an extra-base hit in a career-low 8.3 percent of his plate appearances. He threw strikes and generated swings-and-misses at the highest rate of his career, which helped him hold lefties to a .701 OPS that was 148 points better than his career average.
For the first time in his career, Kendrick looks, talks and acts like a man who is settled. He is in the second year of a 2-year, $7.5 million contract that he signed last spring (when it expires, he will still have one more arbitration year before free agency). This offseason, he and his wife moved into a house in Dunedin, just a 15-minute drive from the Phillies' training complex in Clearwater. When the club traded Worley in December, it cemented what most people already figured: that Kendrick had a spot in the rotation locked up for the 2013 season.
"Today, I wasn't really happy with my changeup," said Kendrick, who allowed home runs to Conor Jackson and Matt Wieters. "The first two hits, the changeup was up a little bit. I need to work on getting that down. All in all, I would have liked to go another inning, but my pitch count was up."
For one of the few times in his career, Kendrick knows he will get plenty more chances.