IT WAS WELL into the season and the Phillies still didn't have a reliable No. 5 starter. They were hanging around a middle-class neighborhood called .500 and something had to be done to save what was starting to look like yet another season headed for pennantless frustration.
Many eyebrows were arched when the men manipulating the joysticks summoned a minor league righthander who had not even been invited to spring training. The organization people liked his arm, but he had often lost focus on a sometimes bumpy climb through the bushes.
Just in case you do not believe that lightning can strike the same place twice, we are talking about two pitchers here - the eerily parallel universes of 1980 call-up Bob Walk and 2007 call-up Kyle Kendrick.
"Larry Christenson messed up his collarbone on that Tug McGraw charity bikeathon in California before spring training and still wasn't ready," Dallas Green, the 1980 manager, said last night before the Phillies went for their 86th victory. That's one fewer than they had in 1980 with five games to play. "Bobby's nickname was 'Whirlybird' and you didn't always know what you were going to get from him in a given game. We thought Scott Munninghoff would be our No. 5, but that didn't work out, Marty Bystrom was coming off a spring-training injury, and we gambled that Walk's ability would overcome the rough spots."
Green agonized in the dugout during the early innings of Walk's debut. "He was wearing out the grass around the mound," Dallas remembered, "moaning about calls and demonstrating poor mound demeanor." The manager made an early visit. "I told him his demeanor was horse[bleep], to get with it," Green said. "I think it's fair to say that Kyle Kendrick has done for Charlie Manuel this year what Bobby Walk did for us."
Kendrick came in from the cold of a scuffling minor league career that had advanced him only as high after 4 years as Double A Reading. All he was asked to do despite a high ERA and losing record was fill the need for a June 13 starter while general manager Pat Gillick and manager Charlie Manuel bought time to figure out what to do in the wake of Freddy Garcia's "No mas" performance on that bleak afternoon in Kansas City.
Nobody was counting very hard on Kendrick being much more than one-and-done - at least for this season.
"I can tell you he wasn't real high in our thinking after Garcia went down," Green said. "I had scouted Reading two or three times, including Kyle's previous start. One of the ways I evaluate a young pitcher is how well he reacts to adversity. The game I saw him start, he had a half-ass outing. He allowed four, five runs and a lot of key hits in situations where you look for a pitcher to suck it up and make some pitches. He's a six-inning, four-run pitcher, and they don't have a lot of margin for error."
That was not the news from Berks County the embattled varsity wanted to hear. But the Phillies decided Kendrick: a) at least threw strikes and had an excellent groundball-to-fly ratio when he kept the ball down; b) would be on his normal throwing day; and c) was the best alternative among what was available in a diet-lean, upper-minors arms corps.
Walk is part of the lore surrounding the singular World Series victory that happened a generation ago. After Green's pitching staff was depleted by the most intense LCS in National League history, the Phillies' Game 1 starter against the Kansas City Royals was a San Fernando Valley kid who was once ejected from a bleacher pavilion in Dodger Stadium for pegging a tennis ball at Astros centerfielder Cesar Cedeno. "We were worried during his minor league time that he might have had some of the social issues kids were going through in the '70s. But Bobby turned out pretty good," Green said. Walk ate enough innings for Dallas to get to the back end of his potent bullpen. The Whirlybird had the honor of posting the second World Series game victory in franchise history.
Like Walk, who was 6-3, 185, Kendrick, who is 6-3, 190, was called to The Show at age 23. Like Walk, he has had a tremendous impact on this improbable season. Without Walk's 11 victories - only Steve Carlton had more after June 13 - the Phillies would have finished with three meaningless games in Montreal's Olympic Stadium. Owner Ruly Carpenter surely would have ordered the breakup of his unfulfilled half-dynasty. Assuming the Carpenter family sold the club in 1981, the Bill Giles group most likely would have bought a ballclub without Pete Rose and much of the nucleus that helped set the close-but-no-cigar record.
Kendrick is 9-4 with an improving 3.83 ERA. He provides the obligatory six innings with Energizer Bunny clockwork, an unexpected gift from the minors that has kept on giving.
Bobby Walk beat the Cubs, 4-2, for the Phils' 89th victory and a tie for first place with the Expos.
Kyle Kendrick will go for his 10th victory tomorrow night against Braves legend John Smoltz.
Kyle Kendrick, World Series Game 1 starter? Maybe that would be asking for too much coincidence . . .
But, why not? *
Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For recent columns, go to