Kendrick is more than a ‘Punked’ pitcher

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The first week of the rest of his life starts today. Something funny or disgusting or foolish will knock Kyle Kendrick and the prank that made him a fly-by-night celebrity into the recesses of inboxes everywhere.

Normalcy won’t return immediately, no way. The jokes around the clubhouse will endure as his Philadelphia Phillies teammates remind him that a coalition of conspirators convinced Kendrick he had been traded to a team in Japan … which cannot happen.

And for a player named Kobayashi Iwamura … who doesn’t exist.

And that a Comcast crew had been invited along to document the entire thing … which made for some tasty public consumption.

“I want to move on with the trade thing,” Kendrick said. “Put that to bed. I’m a pitcher. That’s what I do. I want to be known for pitching. I’d like to talk about that.”

OK. That’s fair.

Though one more look won’t hurt anyone.

Because in a twisted way, the prank – orchestrated by Phillies pitcher Brett Myers, egged on by manager Charlie Manuel, assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., the agent to whom Kendrick gives 5 percent, Joe Urbon, and surrounding players and reporters – actually tells plenty about Kendrick the pitcher.

Just look at him when he walks into Manuel’s office. He’s 23 but might get carded at an R-rated movie. He’s polite to a fault, making him the perfect dupe. And yet he carries himself with the confidence of a veteran, not a little-regarded prospect summoned from Double-A for a spot start who was good enough that the Phillies never sent him back.

“Kendrick’s sitting here, looking at me like this,” Manuel said over the weekend, leaning forward in his office chair. “He was like a puppy dog, like, Charlie, help me out.”

Manuel did no such thing, lest he ruin the prank. He suppressed every chortle about Kendrick’s gullibility and naïveté, didn’t crack when Kendrick later asked, to break the awkward silence in front of the media, “Do they have good food in Japan?”

Never did Kendrick ask why or how. He didn’t yell, didn’t fuss, didn’t complain.

“He kept his poise there,” Manuel said. “That’s a good sign. Watch him on the mound. When he starts getting hit, he keeps working. He stays with what he knows, with what works for him. He doesn’t speed up, slow the game down. He just keeps going.”

See. Told you this would come back to Kendrick’s right arm.

It’s a rather ordinary one, actually, not muscular, not plump, but somewhere in between. Kendrick doesn’t throw very hard. He struck out 49 batters, the fewest in baseball last year among pitchers with at least 120 innings. His ability to underwhelm prompted this response from Manuel when told in mid-June that Kendrick would fill a slot on the Phillies’ injury-splintered pitching staff.

“Kendrick?”

Manuel barely remembered him from spring training. Management told him Kendrick threw a sinker, and it was a unique one. At the beginning of his second season, the pitching coach at short-season Batavia, Warren Brusstar, taught Kendrick how to grip his fastball along the seams instead of across them.

Kyle Kendrick
(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Phillies pitcher Kyle Kendrick makes a catch during a fielding drill at the team’s baseball spring training facility in Clearwater, Fla.

The new grip helped Kendrick’s fastball bore in on right-handed hitters. He tweaked it – Kendrick holds his thumb on the side of the ball, whereas most sinkerballers grip it on the bottom – and found even more movement. And even though he was 4-7 at Double-A, Kendrick got the call from GM Pat Gillick.

“We’re talking one start,” Manuel said. “Then he pitched well against the White Sox. And then he won our only game in a series against the Mets. And then we’re like, ‘Boy, he ain’t bad.’ ”

Kendrick, in fact, was quite good. He went 10-4 with a 3.87 ERA. From Aug. 21 on, Kendrick won five of six decisions as the Phillies burst past the New York Mets to win the National League East title.

“I want to build off last year,” Kendrick said. “Have good quality outings, give my team a chance to win. And then, who knows?”

A no-hitter? A pennant? A World Series victory? Then, perhaps, people will recognize Kendrick for more than a viral video.

There’s another option, too.

Myers’ locker is right next to Kendrick’s.

“I’m going to get him back. Believe me,” Kendrick said. “And when I do, everyone will know.”

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Feb 25, 2008