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Relying on the rookie works again for Rays

Joe Kennedy pitches six gutsy innings, gets atypical support in 7-2 win over Jays.

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Rays rookie Joe Kennedy gets a pat from catcher Mike DiFelice during his solid six-inning effort.

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 4, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- When you're struggling as bad as the Rays are -- they entered Tuesday night having lost 11 of 14 -- you tend to try to find something that works and latch on to it.

On June 6, the Rays were on a six-game losing streak and playing Toronto when they threw out the new kid, Joe Kennedy, for his first major-league start. He won, the streak was snapped and the Rays won two of three for only the third time all season.

Tuesday at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay found itself on a four-game losing streak and those same Blue Jays were in town. Enter Kennedy, streak stopper extraordinaire.

The rookie pitched six innings of two-run ball and scattered eight hits as the Rays kicked off a six-game homestand with a 7-2 victory in front of an announced 13,789.

On a night in which he didn't have his best stuff, Kennedy continued to inspire comparisons to one of the game's greats.

"At the same age he reminds me of (Roger) Clemens," Rays pitching coach Bill Fischer said. "The way he goes about his work, he doesn't mess around. He's got three good pitches, he throws strikes and he works fast. He's held his own against every team he faced. He's got a good chance to be a dominant pitcher, not just for one year but for a long time."

Kennedy wasn't as dominant as he had been in his past five starts. He didn't record a strikeout until the sixth inning, and his curveball didn't have the sharp break that brought him from Double A to the majors in less than three months.

photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Greg Vaughn watches a drive miss clearing the leftfield fence by inches, settling for a double in the third.
That translated into a somewhat shaky start as Kennedy allowed a two-out walk to Raul Mondesi in the first inning, followed by a sharp single off the bottom of his right foot by Carlos Delgado. But Kennedy battled back and got Tony Fernandez to line out to second to end the inning.

The Blue Jays opened the second with three singles, but Kennedy picked off Jose Cruz Jr. at first and escaped with a double play courtesy of Alberto Castillo to keep it scoreless.

"I really didn't have a put-out pitch tonight," Kennedy said. "I got to a lot of two-strike counts and hung a couple of breaking balls. I just couldn't get that put-out pitch over tonight. But you're going to have those nights.

"I was just trying to keep the ball in the zone, keep it down and try to let them make the outs. Put the ball in play and let the defense do the rest."

That's exactly what happened.

The Rays turned three double plays, including one started by Kennedy and one that kicked off the glove of reliever Travis Phelps right to shortstop Andy Sheets, who stepped on second and threw to first to complete the play.

The offense didn't hurt, either, ringing up 13 hits and staking Kennedy to a 4-0 lead in the third. Jason Tyner and Damian Rolls each tied career bests with three hits, and Steve Cox improved his average to .333 since he began playing full-time 12 games ago with a double and two RBI.

"When they go out and put up 13 hits it settles you right down," Kennedy said. "Pitching with a lead is easier. When they can score four or five runs, it makes my job that much easier."

Even the Rays bullpen, notorious for blowing leads and making games more interesting than they should be, got in on the action.

Phelps relieved Kennedy to start the seventh and picked up where he left off against the Yankees. Saturday, Phelps retired all five batters he faced at Yankee Stadium, and he continued the hot streak at Tropicana Field.

The 23-year-old rookie retired eight of 10, surrendering only an eighth-inning walk to Cesar Izturis and a ninth-inning single to Cruz. Phelps buckled down after that and struck out Alex Gonzalez and popped up pinch-hitter Brad Fullmer to end the game.

"We pitched well, we hit well and the ball bounced our way," Tyner said. "Like the ball going off the pitcher for a double play. Things like that haven't been happening for us."

For one night, at least, they finally did.

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