Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson have turned into the D-backs’ formidable one-two punch
By Greg Dillard
It was a misty June afternoon as Ian Kennedy approached the tee box, taking a couple of practice swings before driving his ball down the middle of the fairway. Daniel Hudson followed, splitting the same fairway with his tee shot.
The two, along with fellow starter Joe Saunders, were playing the 95-year-old Oakland Hills Country Club course during an off-day on the D-backs’ road trip to Michigan during Interleague play.
“The front nine I played over my skis,” Kennedy laughed. “I played myself in the back nine, and it evened out my score.”
The greens are just one place where the dynamic duo has grown close over the past year. Both right-handers, as well as the entire starting rotation, have formed a close-knit bond since the start of the 2011 season.
“We go out to dinners on the road together,” Kennedy said. “We golf together all the time. We try to schedule our golf outings all the time on the road and map it out. We’re really close.”
While the starting rotation as a whole maintains a friendship, it’s Kennedy and Hudson that stand out above the rest.
In just their second seasons in Arizona, the two have formed an indomitable one-two punch atop the starting rotation. In 2011, there have been a variety of instrumental factors behind the D-backs’ surge toward the top of the division standings, but perhaps none more influential than the strong pitching of Kennedy and Hudson.
The Kennedy-Hudson combination is just the latest of prolific twosomes in the National League West, a division that has long boasted many of baseball’s most talented starting pitchers. Recent history has indicated that it often takes not one, but two frontline starters to capture a division crown. Kevin Brown and Andy Ashby combined for 35 wins in San Diego’s 1998 NL championship season.
Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling led the D-backs to the 2001 World Series title three years later. In San Francisco, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain pitched the Giants to a world championship in 2010.
Now, it’s Kennedy and Hudson who are among the division’s finest hurlers. Hudson owns a career 2.52 ERA against NL West foes to go with Kennedy’s 2.96 mark.
“I think until this year, we were kind of the ones that weren’t really considered good starting pitching,” Kennedy said. “It’s nice to be brought up with those guys because they are all really good players and All-Stars.”
D-backs backstop Miguel Montero, who has caught over 65 Kennedy/Hudson starts, is adamant that both right-handers match up equally with baseball’s elite.
“Other guys are nasty, but so are these guys,” Montero said. “When we face other teams we’re like, ‘OK, we’re going to face a tough pitcher.’ It’s the same thing for them. When they face our guys, they’re going, ‘OK, we’ve got to be ready.’”
The tandem that combined for 16 wins a season ago already tallied 25 victories by early August this year.
“They’re guys you can trust,” Montero said. “You can call any pitch any time, and you’re confident that they’re going to make a good, quality pitch. When you’ve got guys like that on the mound, it makes it a fun game for me as a catcher.”
Many of those fun games and clutch performances have come when the D-backs have needed them most. Earlier this month, Arizona headed to San Francisco for a pivotal three-game series with first place on the line. Kennedy got the nod in the series opener and delivered eight strong innings to capture a 5-2 win.
It was Hudson’s turn in game two, as he toed the rubber against two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum. Hudson out-dueled the Giants’ ace by surrendering one run in eight innings of work, as the D-backs cruised to a 6-1 victory.
Whether it’s after a tough loss or in a vital division matchup, Arizona’s one-two punch has proven to be as reliable as they come.
“It’s huge you know,” Montero said. “They’re still young. They’re still developing. They seem to me like they’ve been around here for a long time because of the way they prepare themselves, the way they take care of themselves and the way they pitch.”
At ages 26 and 24, respectively, Kennedy and Hudson are in fact young. Prior to joining the D-backs, the pair had made a combined 23 Major League appearances.
They both came to the desert via trades during a seven-month span last year. Kennedy was acquired by the D-backs in a three-team deal with the Yankees and Tigers over the winter. Hudson, meanwhile, found his way to Arizona last July when the White Sox shipped him to the Valley of the Sun near the trade deadline.
Both of those transactions continue to have a profound impact on the franchise, netting them a pair of young, yet extremely skilled pitchers. Now more than a year since placing the right-handers in the rotation, Kennedy and Hudson have quietly solidified themselves as top-shelf starters.
“They’ve been really solid one-two,” manager Kirk Gibson said. “I don’t think many people around the country look at Kennedy and Hudson like a formidable one-two, but we don’t care about that. We see what they do for us day in and day out and what they mean to this team.”
Kennedy burst onto the scene last season when he won nine games in his first full Major League season. The former USC Trojan posted a 3.80 ERA and 168 strikeouts in 194 innings.
He’s been even better in 2011. Gibson selected him as the team’s Opening Day starter and he’s pitched like an ace ever since.
It’s been one dominant outing after another from Kennedy who won six games during the season’s first two months. He held opponents to a .221 batting average during that span.
One of the finest performances of his blossoming career came on April 25 when he squared off against Philadelphia southpaw Cliff Lee at Chase Field. It was Kennedy who came away the winner, hurling a complete-game shutout. The right-hander scattered just three hits, struck out 10 and did not walk a single batter against the Phillies.
In his final start before the All-Star break, Kennedy defeated St. Louis to tie a career-high with nine wins. That victory was the beginning of a six-start winning streak that has stretched into August and boosted his win total to 14.
Like a true ace, Kennedy has showcased an uncanny ability to pitch deep into ballgames. Through his first 24 starts, he’s thrown six or more innings on 20 occasions. He’s also reached the 100-pitch mark in 21 consecutive starts.
“Last year, I didn’t get to do that as much because of not throwing the year before with surgery,” Kennedy said. “Gibby has had a lot of faith in both of us. He allows us to go out there and know that we’re going to be strong even after a 100 pitches.”
Then there’s Hudson, who’s matched his friend’s success on the rubber all season long.
Hudson’s emergence as an elite starter kicked off during the second half of 2010. After arriving in the desert, he was nearly unhittable for the remainder of the season. His first start in a D-backs uniform came on August 1, when he unleashed eight innings of one-run baseball against the Mets. Hudson allowed just three hits while striking out four en route to a 14-1 win.
Similar outings became commonplace for Hudson, and as the summer continued, so did his success on the mound. The new D-back finished the season with a 7-1 record and sharp 1.69 ERA with his new team.
It’s been more of the same from Hudson in 2011. Despite a slow start, he’s been as good as advertised by winning a career-high 11 games in his first 24 starts of the season.
“I’m obviously pretty happy especially with the start that I had,” Hudson said. “I really didn’t do that well at the beginning of the year, but I’ve still got a long way to go. The ultimate goal is to get to October.”
Like Kennedy, Hudson has made a habit of silencing opposing offenses. On June 17, he turned in an unforgettable start against the team that traded him just months before, the White Sox.
He gave Chicago a first-hand glimpse of what they’re missing by tossing his first career complete game and limiting the White Sox lineup to just three hits and a single earned run.
While pitching is undoubtedly his forte, Hudson’s contributions have been felt from the batter’s box, as well. The Old Dominion product has been one of the best-hitting pitchers in all of baseball.
The right-handed hitter batted .327 in his first 49 at-bats of 2011 with three doubles and 13 RBI. In his July 17 start against the Dodgers, Hudson laced his first career home run, a line drive into the left-field bleachers at Chase Field.
Hudson’s offensive prowess has been a hot topic around the D-backs’ dugout and specifically among his fellow starting pitchers.
One of the dinners in which the D-backs’ starters participate in on the road is the hitting dinner. Each month they choose an offensive statistic and the person with the lowest total at the completion of the month is tabbed with the bill.
The hitting competition has rapidly evolved into a fun way to keep things light during the long season. For Hudson, it’s also been an easy way to get a free meal.
“I haven’t paid for one yet this year, knock on wood,” Hudson said. “It’s something that gives us something to push for. We all take pride in our hitting. It’s something that we really work hard on.”
Each member of the staff partakes in early batting practice in the quest to improve their hitting skills. Kennedy, however, is hesitant to believe that he’ll ever hit like Hudson.
“I wish I could hit like he could,” Kennedy said. “Just give me one of those hits, please. I just want one. I hit the ball hard, and I get out. It doesn’t matter what I do.”
Whether it’s with golf clubs or a baseball, the talented duo in the D-backs’ rotation participates in plenty of friendly competition. The closeness away from the ballpark has produced a healthy rivalry on the field.
If Kennedy throws a gem one night, Hudson seeks to one-up him the following game. Both players admit that having one another around has pushed them to new heights.
“The guy is super confident right now, which he should be,” Hudson said. “He’s been unbelievable this year. So to get some of that confidence and be around it has been really good for me to push myself to try and get to that level.”
Pairing up for great individual performances on the mound is one thing, but the tight-knit atmosphere around the team has certainly been contagious – whether it be at your local country club or the D-backs’ clubhouse.
“A lot of the good teams I’ve played on have been really close like that,” Kennedy said. “It’s a nice breath of fresh air after last year. We had really good players, but we weren’t really close. I feel like we are opposite. Maybe we aren’t as talented as those guys, but we’re closer and it has shown.”
Kennedy/Hudson photo and Kennedy photo by Jonathan Willey. Hudson photo by Jordan Megenhardt