Written by Dave Dulberg, USC blog contributor
During the first three years of his major league career, former USC pitching phenom Ian Kennedy had barely scratched the surface of his pro potential.
After being selected by the New York Yankees with the 21st overall pick in the 2006 MLB Draft, expectations were high for the former Pac-10 Conference Pitcher of the Year to become the next great pinstripe hurler. While he would notch a victory in his first career start in September 2007, the next two years in the Bronx would be a trying time for Kennedy.
In 2008, inconsistent performance and a strained right lat muscle plagued his brief stint with the Yankees, as he went 0-4 with an 8.17 ERA. And although 2009 was supposed to be the two-time All-American's breakout year, he was dealt with the biggest curveball of his short career, season-ending surgery to repair an aneurysm that had formed under his right forearm.
"Those were definitely some tough times," Kennedy said reflecting on his days as a Yankee."After going through all of that in New York, I never would have dreamed this season could have happened."
Thanks to being shipped from the Bronx to the desert before the 2010 campaign, he would get a fresh chance to compete for a starting spot in the Arizona Diamondbacks rotation. In a career-high 32 starts, Kennedy (photo by Jon SooHoo) recorded nine wins, 168 strikeouts and a respectable 3.80 ERA. Even with his contribution though, Arizona finished dead last in the division with a 65-97 record.
"This time last September, we were all planning what we were going to be doing in the offseason," said Kennedy. "For me though, getting that experience last year, learning about myself, my preparation and how to keep myself ready every fifth day was a big step. I adjusted my throwing program this offseason and began to trust what I had."
That trust has paid off in a big way for Kennedy in 2011. The Diamondbacks' Opening Day starter has taken the bump every turn through the rotation with poise and confidence, which the organization had been desperately missing since the days of Brandon Webb, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
As of Monday night's win over the Pirates, he is the lone 20-game winner in the National League - only the fifth Trojan to ever achieve the feat - and the face of one of the most remarkable worst-to-first stories in recent memory as Arizona closes in on the NL West crown.
"I saw how hard winning 20 games really is watching Mike Mussina go through it in 2008, and it doesn't happen unless everyone is doing their job," said Kennedy. "Coach [Mike] Gillespie always put pressure on me while I was still at USC to be the next guy to do it. So to even be brought up with names like Tom Seaver, Johnson and Barry Zito is such an honor, because there are a lot of great players that have come through the baseball program."
The Cy Young candidate is just happy to contribute to a winning team again, something he hasn't really done since anchoring USC's 2005 Super Regional team.
"Going from worst to first, it's just been a lot of fun because we flew under the radar for so long," said Kennedy on what this season has meant to his career. "It's added another sense of fulfillment to the game that I haven't probably felt in sometime. This team feels a lot like the team we had at USC in 2005. Sure, we are adults but we act like we are college kids. I don't feel like I have to be the guy, all I want is to be part of it."
Kennedy's year has been one to remember for more than his successes between the white lines. Earlier this year, he and his wife, former USC women's basketball player Allison Jaskowiak, gave birth to their first child, Nora Rose, on Easter Sunday. The following night he delivered his first career complete game shutout and has not looked back since.
"It definitely changes everything and gives you more perspective on things," said Kennedy on becoming a father. "There's a lot more important things than what happens on a baseball field. When I go home, I am dad first and everything else goes away."