Go West

SAN DIEGO – Pressure is what you make of it, but there is no doubt that it can weaken or strengthen an individual.

For the San Diego Padres’ Ian Kennedy, it taught the 29-year-old right-handed pitcher from Orange County, who is 8-10 with a 3.51 earned-run average, 155 strikeouts and 50 walks, there’s always greener pastures.

A first round draft pick (21st overall) of the New York Yankees in 2006, Kennedy, along with Phil Hughes, who pitched for Foothill High in Santa Ana, and was selected in the first round in 2004, were supposed to be the Bronx Bombers mound saviors.

This notion didn’t play out to the extent that Yankees’ General Manager Brian Cashman had wished.

After an outstanding career at La Quinta High, Kennedy ventured off to USC, where the 6-foot, 190-pounder toiled for three seasons.

In Kennedy’s freshman campaign, he went 7-2 with a 2.91 ERA, then 12-3 with a 2.54 ERA, and 5-7 with a 3.90 ERA in his junior season.

Like any young player walking onto the big stage, Kennedy felt somewhat intimidated. When it’s Yankee Stadium, the pressure and scrutiny can be extreme.

“I remember the first time I saw Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte,’’ said Kennedy after a recent 4-3 San Diego win over the Atlanta Braves at Petco Park on Everth Cabrera’s 10th inning single. “I couldn’t believe I was actually at Yankee Stadium with players I watched as a kid. The first thing I did after the game was call my friends.’’

Kennedy started three games in 2007 for New York and went 1-0 with a solid 1.89 ERA. But in 2008, Kennedy struggled and finished 0-4 with an 8.17 ERA in nine games started, while in 2009 he hardly worked, and was then traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks where he was afforded his first big break.

“They’re definitely more intense on the East Coast,’’ he said. “They take their baseball very seriously.”

That’s especially true in the Big Apple where Yankees’ history is littered with a big-league best 40 World Series appearances, 27 banners, and every facet about a player is plastered across a half-dozen newspapers.

Matters improved greatly when Kennedy moved his trade to the West Coast before the 2010 season. “There was a learning curve in 2008,’’ he said of his time with the Yankees. “When I was traded to Arizona, I learned how to pitch at the big-league level. I got that chance with the Diamondbacks.”

After a 9-10 outing with a 3.80 ERA in the desert, Kennedy put together his masterpiece to date in 2011 when he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA, along with a career-high 198 strikeouts. His work was good enough to place fourth in the National League Cy Young voting, and Kennedy backed that effort with a 15-12 mark and 187 strikeouts with a 4.02 ERA.

“I was able to execute my pitches [with Arizona],’’ he said. “You have to stay strong mentally.”

It’s been tough for the Padres, third in the NL West, but there is hope based on their talented pitching staff.

“We can’t change our lineup too much,’’ Kennedy said. “We’ve had timely hitting, we hit the cut-off man, and we hit behind the runner. We need to do all the small things right.”

One step at a time could be Kennedy’s mantra, and also don’t let the pressure get to you.

Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at richsports5@sbcglobal.net.

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