MIAMI - A week ago, Kyle Kendrick seemed taken aback when reporters implied that his rotation spot might be in jeopardy after a rough outing against the Braves. That prompted a meeting in which Charlie Manuel encouraged his 27-year-old righthander to ignore whatever narrative the media might project, telling him that he would learn any such news the old-fashioned way. That is, face-to-face.
Whether Kendrick's performance against the Marlins on Tuesday night was the result of confidence restored or it was simply the latest uptick in an inconsistent season, the only thing that really matters is the results. And in a 1-0 win in which he pitched seven scoreless innings, the results were excellent.
"You just have to go out and pitch," said Kendrick, who improved to 5-9 while lowering his ERA to 4.53. "That's the main thing. I know they are behind me. I just need to stick to who I am."
Manuel and Kendrick both believe that he can be the guy who took the mound at Marlins Park and logged his third scoreless outing of seven innings or longer this season. That pitcher pounds the zone with his sinker while mixing in his changeup. He takes ownership of the inner third of the plate early in the game, something he did to great effect on Tuesday, moving batters' feet and making them uncomfortable in the box.
"He was very aggressive in there," Manuel said. "That helped set him up the rest of the game."
Kendrick finished with six strikeouts. He did not walk a batter or allow an extra-base hit. Eight of the 14 outs he recorded on balls in play came on grounders.
"Sometimes I try to overthink stuff or get cutter happy," Kendrick said. "Last game, I threw 30 cutters. That's not me."
When it comes to building confidence for next season, Kendrick has as much of an opportunity as anybody on the roster over the next couple of months. The Phillies essentially named him their fifth starter for 2013 when they signed him to a 2-year contract extension that will pay him $4.5 million next season. They would love to see him finish the season with a consistent run of solid outings, a goal that has eluded him during his long stretches in the rotation. In his last nine starts, he has a 5.77 ERA. But in two of those nine starts, he combined to throw 16 scoreless innings.
"That's the consistency part," Manuel said. "I think he can be better because he shows you that he's got it [in him]. He can get through that. I definitely think he can get over that."
As a team, the Phillies could be headed for a bad case of the should, coulda, would ofs. In taking the first two games of this three-game series against the Marlins, they improved to 9-5 since the July 31 trades of Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. They are 17-12 since the All-Star break, and 17-15 since Chase Utley and Ryan Howard both appeared in the lineup for the first time. But they are still just 54-62 overall, and they trail the Pirates, who are the current leader for the second wild-card spot, by 10 games in the loss column.
The steadying of the ship has been mostly due to pitching performances like the one Kendrick produced Tuesday night, when Josh Johnson and the Marlins' bullpen held the Phillies scoreless after Jimmy Rollins' leadoff home run. In 14 games since the July 31 trades, the pitching staff has combined to post a 2.69 ERA.
Any public talk of making a run at the playoffs has long since disappeared. But when the Phillies were on the opposite end of the spectrum, Manuel always used to say that he would not be comfortable until they had a 10-game lead with nine to play. And you know darn well that deep down in his heart, he won't give up on the postseason until they are 10 back with nine to play.
"We're still breathing," he said with a sly grin.
On a respirator, yes. But still breathing.