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Kennedy pierces gloom

Rookie pitches five solid innings in debut as Rays snap six-game skid with 6-2 win.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 7, 2001

Rookie pitches five solid innings in debut as Rays snap six-game skid with 6-2 win.

TORONTO -- Mom was pacing somewhere out of sight. Dad, unable to relax, was standing with a half-finished beer behind the bleachers of Section 121. Uncle Robert was on a cell phone, delivering play-by-play to the rest of the family back home in southern California.

SkyDome seemed to be crawling with Kennedy family members Wednesday night, and each seemed more anxious than the next. Except for Joe, of course.

He was the one chatting with his aunt and uncle in a downtown diner as Tuesday night gave way to Wednesday morning. He was the one sitting in the dugout in shorts and shower slippers watching teammates during batting practice. He was the one who restored a little bit of optimism in a Rays season that has been sadly devoid of hope.

In his major-league debut Wednesday night, the 22-year-old Kennedy became the youngest Rays pitcher to win a game when he beat the Blue Jays 6-2.

"More than anything, I feel like crying," said his father, John Kennedy. "I am so proud of him right now."

His first big-league paycheck is due to arrive June 15, and already it has been spent. That's because Joe insisted that he was paying for plane tickets for his parents, his brother and sister, even 2-year-old nephew Ricky to fly to Toronto from the family home near San Diego.

They were among 19 family members and friends who converged from four states to see Joe's debut.

It was an entourage befitting a star, and that is precisely how Kennedy pitched.

Staked to a 4-0 lead before he took the mound, Kennedy struck out Shannon Stewart, the first batter he faced, and went on to shackle a team that was second in the American League in home runs and fourth in runs scored.

Kennedy went five innings and gave up two runs and could have done even more, except manager Hal McRae wanted to make sure the rookie left on a positive note.

"If you could have scripted it," McRae said, "that's probably the best script you could imagine."

And you better believe, it had been scripted years before.

Kennedy is a right-hander by birth, but a left-hander by profession. His father, with an eye toward a baseball scholarship, taught Joe how to throw left-handed when he was 4 years old.

The kid has not stopped whipping baseballs since.

Which explains why he looked so calm. Why he worked out of jams with the ease of a veteran. Why he was able to stop a losing streak that the rest of the rotation had been unable to do the past six games.

He may not have been born to be great, but he was born to be a ballplayer.

"He handled himself outstanding. He was very focused," catcher Mike DiFelice said. "I was really impressed by him."

It's hard not to be impressed by a pitcher who throws in the 92-94 mph range and has a sharp break on his curveball and a decent changeup.

The package is completed by his natural mound presence. A sense that he belongs and that he is in charge.

Kennedy said he even surprised himself with his cool demeanor. He never stole a peek into the bleachers to look for his family; he never found himself standing on the mound in awe of his new surroundings.

The only real excitement, he said, was running onto the field for the first time.

"I can't describe that. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Kennedy said. "I'll never experience that again, so I'll always cherish it."

An eighth-round draft choice in 1998, Kennedy's debut completed a remarkable rise through the Rays system. After three seasons of rookie ball and Class A, Kennedy spent barely two months in Double A and Triple A this season. He went 6-0 with an 0.99 ERA at Orlando and Durham before joining the major-league club.

Kennedy's start ended a streak of 219 games without a left-handed starter for the Rays. The streak, which began after Wilson Alvarez's start against the Yankees on Oct. 2, 1999, was the longest in the majors in eight years.

When the game was completed, and relievers Rusty Meacham and Esteban Yan shut down the Jays, Kennedy was greeted with a beer shower in the clubhouse, courtesy of the Rays pitching staff.

And that, apparently, was a prelude to what was going to come next.

"There is going to be a party going on tonight," John Kennedy said. "Toronto is going to know who pitched this game."

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