Baseball Preview: Kennedy Ready to Anchor Bullpen

 

Editors note: This is the first of an eight-part series, highlight some of Kentucky's key returnees in preparation for the 2011 baseball season opener on Feb. 18 at No. 20 College of Charleston.

As one of the top pitching coaches in the nation in 2004, Gary Henderson was forming a pitching staff to help get Kentucky baseball over the hump in the Southeastern Conference. One of the first things Henderson did when arriving in Lexington as the pitching coach for then head coach John Cohen’s first year was recruit walk-on sidearm reliever Brock Baber.

After appearing in 98 career games from the 2005-08 seasons, Baber graduated with the second-most appearances in school annals and as one of the best relievers in program history.


That left a huge void in Henderson’s pitching staff entering the 2009 season, his first as the head coach of the Wildcat program. Widely praised for his recruiting and talent evaluation skills, Henderson signed a skinny right-handed sidearm reliever out of Los Angeles, Nick Kennedy.

“One of the things that I think helps a pitching staff is to have different looks coming in out of the bullpen,” Henderson said. “I have never believed in the cookie cutter approach to pitching, where everybody has to be of the same build or delivery or style. It is a real advantage to your pitching staff to have different looks. To have a guy who is a submariner, sidearm guy, is a real benefit. Anytime you have an unusual look, it takes a while for the hitters to get acclimated and get comfortable.”

Kennedy showed tremendous progress as the type of late-inning, matchup reliever UK needed in its 2009 pitching staff before suffering a season-ending elbow injury after his first two career outings, where he struck out four in 3.2 innings with one save.

“It was tough,” Kennedy said about sitting out the 2009 season due to injury. “Watching the rest of that year, after only pitching against Troy and Indiana, and knowing that you can’t pitch physically but always wanting too was rough. Just watching the game and knowing you wanted to come in and help but that you can’t physically, it was a tough situation.”

After offseason surgery, which required two titanium screws in his elbow, Kennedy rehabbed with hopes of making a return in 2010. After missing the first three weekends of the season, Kennedy returned to the UK pitching staff, immediately securing a role as one of the primary relievers out of the bullpen.

“I was excited but I kept on having to remind myself to not push it too hard,” Kennedy said about waiting until the third week of the 2010 season for his first outing. “That might have contributed to the first injury, that I came back and was really amped up and ready to go and probably overthrew it a little bit and I got hurt again. I was just really excited to get back but at the same time I was a little bit withdrawn. I had to sit around and rehab and wait for the training staff and coaches to give me the go ahead and say I am ready to go.”

After returning to full form after a three-inning season-debut outing, Kennedy made 21 appearances on the year, totaling a 4-1 record with a save, a 4.21 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 36.1 innings. With the UK pitching staff decimated by injuries midway through the conference season, Kennedy was shouldering a significant portion of the pitching workload, picking up crucial wins at Arkansas, at Georgia and vs. Alabama.

In the outing at Arkansas, on the third SEC weekend of the year, Kennedy solidified his role as one of the top relievers in the league, but more importantly proved to himself that he could stay healthy and pitch long innings. Kennedy picked up the win vs. the Razorbacks, going 4.1 innings in relief of starter Logan Darnell, striking out a career-high six.

“It was a huge boost,” Kennedy said about the outing at Arkansas. “At the start the coaches and trainers were pretty protective of my health. In my first outing I came in and threw three innings just to kind of test it out. But knowing that my stamina was back and my arm was holding up just fine, it really boosted my confidence going into the rest of the year. It was also a huge boost knowing that I could come in and pitch effectively against an SEC team. That was really the first SEC appearance that I had done really well in.”

Throughout the year, Kennedy was a workhorse. The lanky right-hander appeared in every SEC weekend series and was a major weapon on the UK pitching staff.

“Nick has really improved during his three years here,” Henderson said. “He is at a point now where he is throwing harder. He is commanding his pitches at a much better rate. His secondary stuff has improved dramatically and he pitches with a lot more poise. We are looking for him to be a key member of our bullpen in 2011.”

After hurling 36.1 innings in 2010, Kennedy stayed in Lexington during the summer working on strength gain and getting ready for the fall and spring. During the fall, Kennedy looked improved from the 2010 version, showcasing increased velocity and the ability to throw a changeup, in addition to his devastating slider.

“Last year was more of a broader look at getting ready for the year. I was just trying to get back to health,” Kennedy said. “This year, coach Henderson has really gotten specific with some of the things that I need to do to get better. Spotting up with my fastball, I feel like I’ve gotten a little better at doing that and with my changeup. Last year, I basically didn’t have a changeup and in the fall coach focused a lot on getting that pitch better so I can have a third pitch to go along with the slider and fastball.”

Overall, UK’s pitching staff appears to be one of the best in the SEC on paper, returning weekend starters Alex Meyer, Jordan Cooper and Taylor Rogers. Kennedy, right-hander Braden Kapteyn and southpaw Mike Kaczmarek will anchor the bullpen, combined with a talented mix of newcomers.

“I’m really excited about the year,” Kennedy said. “We have a very good pitching staff. We have a lot of young guys who have shown some promise. Corey Littrell, Jonathan Paquet, Trevor Gott, those guys have really come through and had a good fall. We have a good group returners, too. Michael Williams, Chad Wright, Taylor Black, those guys just keep stepping up and performing well. We are eager to get out on the field in Charleston.”