MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Kennedy running out of time to make impression

Tuesday night's start for Padres right-hander could be critical to his rotation spot

Kennedy running out of time to make impression

SAN DIEGO -- On the eve of his next start against the Mets on Tuesday night at Petco Park, Padres right-hander Ian Kennedy has been delivered the message from manager Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley.

"He needs to step it up," Black said before the Padres opened their three-game series against the Mets on Monday night with a 7-0 loss.

The need for Kennedy to do just that became even more acute when Andrew Cashner couldn't make it out of the fifth inning, the Mets having scored six runs (five earned) on 11 hits, including a Daniel Murphy two-run homer. This despite a career-high 12 strikeouts for the right-hander, whose record fell to 2-8.

"You won't see a pitching line like Cash's very often," Black said afterward. "That was incredible."

For Kennedy, here are the facts on the ground: Not only is Kennedy the most problematic of the Padres' five starters, but his 7.15 ERA is the worst of any Major League starter this season with at least eight starts.

"I've struggled in the past. This isn't the first time," Kennedy told MLB.com's Corey Brock the other day. "But I can't look back on it anymore. I have to fix this."

It best be sooner rather than later, because the walls are closing in. Brandon Morrow is beginning his rehab stint in the Minor Leagues on Tuesday night, and if his once-inflamed right shoulder can handle 60 pitches, he'll get another outing on Sunday. If Morrow clears that hurdle, then San Diego's brain trust is going to be facing a big decision with six starters for five slots.

"And we're not going to a six-man rotation, no," Black said.

Dropping Cashner is not an option, Black said. Black is going to keep running Cashner out there even with a rising 3.46 ERA. Take into account the 13 unearned runs he has also given up and Cashner has allowed a whopping 5.19 runs a game. Considering also that the Padres have scored just 14 runs in his 11 starts (seven in one game, a 7-2 victory over the Angels this past Wednesday), it's no wonder Cashner has only won twice.

What to do? Pitching in Morrow's slot, Odrisamer Despaigne has done well twice in a row, having allowed only one run on 12 hits in his last 14 innings against the Angels and Pirates. That includes eight innings of one-run, seven-hit ball in a 7-1 victory over Pittsburgh here on Sunday night.

Despaigne lost a spirited Spring Training battle with Morrow for the fifth spot in the rotation. He started the season in the bullpen, but was pressed right into action when Kennedy strained his left hamstring during the third inning of the home opener on April 9 against the Giants. Despaigne pitched 4 2/3 innings of no-run, no-hit ball in a game San Diego lost in 12 innings, 1-0.

Despaigne acquitted himself well in two starts while Kennedy was on the disabled list. In the seven starts since his return, Kennedy mostly hasn't.

The Padres had a string of nine quality starts in a row sandwiched in between a six-run, five-inning collapse by Kennedy against the Nationals at home on May 17 and last Thursday night's 3 2/3 innings of seven-run, seven-hit ball against the Pirates, both losses. The last one, in which Kennedy also was pelted for three home runs, really started the managerial wheels spinning.

"Despaigne has made two good starts, no doubt about it," Black said. "And Ian, we need him to get back on track. When we started the season, we thought that with [Despaigne's] style and the resiliency of his arm, going into the bullpen made the most sense. Morrow has pitched in relief as well. Ian Kennedy, not so much."

To Black's point, Kennedy has made 184 appearances in his nine-year career for the Yankees, D-backs and Padres, but only two of those were in relief, neither of them for San Diego. Kennedy's best season was a 21-4 with a 2.88 effort for the D-backs in 2011, the last time they made it to the postseason.

Kennedy has never come close to replicating that kind of dominance or consistency. The D-backs tried in vain to get Kennedy to pitch inside, but after he struggled through eight losses in 11 decisions in 2013, then general manager Kevin Towers couldn't watch it anymore and he shipped him to the Padres at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Kennedy has been a reclamation project ever since. When the 30-year-old righty crawled back to 13-13 with a 3.63 ERA in 2014, Black thought he might be over the hump. Not so, as Kennedy has showed so far this year. His release point and arm slot are never the same, causing his fastball location to wander.

And though Black said he doesn't believe there's any lingering effect from Kennedy's hamstring injury, he and Balsley have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to correct these issues.

"We're just trying to create a little bit of a better angle out of his windup and his stretch," Black said. "We're trying get his release point just a tad higher so he angles his pitches down low. If you collapse a little on that back leg, you lose the angle and your pitches go flat."

That's the mechanics of it and to be successful there must be repetition, the same release point and motion on every pitch. The rest of it comes from the heart, the mind and the guts. Kennedy also has to show some guts. He'll have one start on Tuesday night, perhaps, to make these adjustments.

If not, Kennedy may be a self-inflicted victim as a serious decision beckons.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.