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Rays' Kennedy won't be intimidated

The 23-year-old LHP is not nervous about facing the opposing teams' top pitchers.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- He's 23, a season and a half removed from the minors, has all of 15 wins and 50 starts in the big leagues, and he's suddenly the ace of the Devil Rays pitching staff.

And just how does Joe Kennedy view this challenge?

He can't wait.

So bring on Pedro Martinez and the Red Sox on opening night, Roger Clemens, Mark Buehrle, Barry Zito, Freddy Garcia, Brad Radke and the rest of the American League's best.

"I'm definitely ready for it," Kennedy said. "That's the only way you can do it. If I sit here and go, 'Oh, my God, I've got to face all these guys.' ... I enjoyed going into a ballgame last year when I was facing Pedro, when I was facing Buehrle, when I was facing Clemens.

"That's who I want to pitch against."

Kennedy doesn't do humble very well. His basic approach is that if he keeps doing what he is capable of, and can make a few adjustments and improvements along the way, it is going to be good enough.

Could confidence be a problem?

"With Joe? I don't think so," pitching coach Chris Bosio said. "And that's what I like about him -- he's confident, and he's got a little cocky to him."

The Rays might seem to be asking a lot of Kennedy, hoping he can step up in a rotation left nearly vacant by the decisions to let Tanyon Sturtze, Paul Wilson and Ryan Rupe go, but he doesn't see it that way. To him, there's no reason to feel pressure, nothing to be intimidated by.

"He's too stupid to know any better," teammate and former roommate Nick Bierbrodt said, in a complimentary way. "He doesn't really care. He's going to go out and do what he has to do to be successful. I really don't think he's going to put any pressure on himself.

"When you think about it, that's what everybody in their career would like to be -- a No. 1 at some point. Now, is he ready? This might be the only team he'd be a No. 1 probably. I think he'll definitely be ready as far as this team. Would he be ready on the Yankees? No. But he will do fine this year. I think he's going to surprise a lot of people with what he does."

Kennedy seems ready for the challenge, having slimmed down and firmed up, learning to eat healthier and take better care of himself. He has been working hard in camp, winning the mile run and regularly finishing near the front of the sprints. He is refining a new pitch, something he says is "more of a slider-cutter," to complement a repertoire that includes a fastball, a looping curve and a changeup. If anything he is even more confident and arrogant than he was before.

Still, there is more work to do.

"He's that 220-230 innings guy that we're looking for, but now the rest is going to be up to Joe," Bosio said. "I'm looking forward to working with him on a daily basis, talking about scouting reports and preparation, on-the-field and off-the-field stuff, and that's where we can all learn from each other.

"Joe, as everybody knows, he's a special pitcher. But Joe's a guy that's going to have to work and get better at it just like every other major-league pitcher. He's got some stuff to work on like all of them do."

Consistency would be one thing, learning how to make the bad days not so bad. "More quality outings," Kennedy said. There were three starts last season when he didn't last more than four innings, and five others when he went five. Limiting his pitch count would be another. Apart from his five complete games, the second-most in the league, he only went past seven innings twice.

"To truly establish himself as an outstanding major-league pitcher he's got to gain consistency, which means gaining command of all his pitches and keeping his pitch count down so he can stay in the game seven or eight innings," general manager Chuck LaMar said.

The season could be rough. Manager Lou Piniella said he will be sensitive to matchups and try to make sure Kennedy doesn't always have to face the other team's best, but it is still possible that Kennedy could pitch well, better than last season when he was 8-11 with a 4.53 ERA, and have bad numbers.

"I told him he could very well have 16 losses this year, but you've got to look at it with a different perspective than having 16 losses," Bierbrodt said.

But considering where he was two years ago, a relatively unheralded prospect who was not even invited to major-league camp, it is not a bad situation.

"If you sit there and look at it, it's pretty weird that in 2001 I was in minor-league spring training and now it's 2003 and they're looking at me to be the guy to anchor the staff," Kennedy said. "It's just going to be exciting."

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