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Don't laugh: Stopper Kendrick leads Phillies past Marlins
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Kyle Kendrick might be on the best roll of his major-league career, but he hasn’t lost his humility.

So when someone used the word “stopper” to describe him after he picked up his third win in six starts in a 7-2 victory over the Miami Marlins on Thursday night, Kendrick nearly laughed out loud (see Instant Replay).

It was almost as if he wanted to say: Those guys ahead of me in the rotation -- you know, Messrs. Hamels, Halladay and Lee -- they’re stoppers. I’m just little, ol’ sinkerballer Kyle Kendrick.

Well, look what little, ol’ sinkerballer Kyle Kendrick is doing these days. He’s 3-1 with a 2.43 ERA after a half-dozen starts. By comparison, Hamels is 1-3 with a 4.78 ERA, Halladay is 2-3 with a 6.75 ERA and Lee is 2-2 with a 3.46 ERA.

As a team, the Phillies are 4-2 in Kendrick’s starts. By comparison, they are 2-4 in Halladay’s starts, 2-4 in Lee’s starts and 1-5 in Hamels’ starts.

A month into the season, Kendrick has been this club’s best starter. And after his last two starts, well, maybe that stopper label isn’t something to snicker at. After all, Thursday night’s seven-inning, two-run performance came after the Phils were tuned-up in a pair of losses at Cleveland. Kendrick’s previous win, a shutout against the Mets in New York, came after the Phils had lost three straight to Pittsburgh.

“I don’t look at myself as a stopper,” Kendrick said. “I’m just trying to pitch a quality game and give us a chance to win.”

Kendrick’s performance Thursday night didn’t have the shine of his outing in New York, but it was impressive because he battled his way through early command problems and never lost his cool in pitching out of trouble several times. Several years ago, Kendrick might have tightened up in close situations and slowed the game down. By in this one, he kept his pace and rhythm. He got two big strikeouts in the third inning, one with two men on, the other with the bases loaded.

Kendrick spent the last few seasons as a swingman, filling rotation spots when needed then being shipped to the bullpen. He wanted the chance to start full-time and got it when Joe Blanton was traded last August. In his last 16 starts dating to mid-August, Kendrick is 10-4 with 2.43 ERA. After years of ups and downs, the 28-year-old right-hander is becoming a dependable major-league pitcher.

“I’ve always kind of expected this out of me,” Kendrick said. “I know it hasn’t been there in the past like I’ve wanted, the fans have wanted, my teammates, the coaches, the organization, but I expect this out of me. Hopefully, now I can be consistent like that and give us a chance to win the game. That’s the main thing as a starting pitcher. I’m feeling comfortable and confident I can do that every time out.”

That’s a pretty good quote. It shows great awareness on Kendrick’s part and also the maturity that is becoming evident in his pitching.

Erik Kratz has been behind the plate for Kendrick’s last three outings. Kendrick has allowed just four runs in 22 innings over the span. Clearly, the two are connecting.

“He has the ability to throw all his pitches for strikes,” Kratz said. “And he’s being aggressive with them. He’s not afraid of contact. Kyle has built on that second half he had last year. He’s very confident. It’s rewarding having a game plan and seeing him execute it.”

Kratz had an important contribution beyond his work behind the plate. The Phils were up, 2-1, in the fifth inning (on the strength of solo home runs by Domonic Brown and Ryan Howard) when Kratz worked an 11-pitch walk to open the bottom of the fifth. He moved up on a bunt by Kendrick, went to third on an error and scored on a sacrifice fly by Chase Utley. The two-runinning gave Kendrick some breathing room before the Phils pulled away at the end.

“It ended up being a good at-bat for the team,” Kratz said. “Then Kyle got the bunt down. That’s what we talk about every day, ‘Keep the line moving. Keep the momentum going.’”

The Phils are three games under .500 and struggling to put together consistency. It’s difficult to call that momentum. But as new rightfielder Delmon Young said after the game, “We’re struggling and we’re still only 4½ games back. No one has taken off yet. Last year, I was with (World Series team) Detroit and we were picked to win and we were under .500 for awhile before getting hot at the right time. This is a six-month season. You just need to stay within striking distance, be no more than five games out at the all-star break and you can make your move because you play the division teams so much in the second half.”