Yanks' rookies surprised by transition
Preparation, coaching, veterans make pitchers feel at home
NEW YORK -- Sometime on Thursday, Ian Kennedy will board a charter flight bound for Kansas City, where a three-game series at Kauffman Stadium and his second big league assignment await. He won't have to carry his bags.
The 22-year-old rookie, making his first road trip since being summoned from the Minors, has compared life in a Yankees uniform to being treated like royalty. Not that he would cast aspersions on his dizzying path to the Bronx, but the experience has been better than even he thought it would be.
"I didn't expect it any other way, because the Yankees are always in a pennant race," Kennedy said. "It's nice to feel that every game counts. Even though I'm a rookie, I want to win every time I go out there."
Like relief stud Joba Chamberlain, Kennedy opened the year in front of sparse Florida State League crowds. His quick assimilation into the Yankees' fold is already well ahead of schedule, coming on the heels of a seven-inning, one-earned-run performance against the Devil Rays on Saturday.
"I thought I'd be in [Double-A] Trenton," Kennedy admits. "But you get a little greedy, and you want to go to the next level and the next level [after that]. It's not a trend, so I didn't know if I was shooting for the stars or if I was thinking about something that could actually happen."
It has happened more than expected in 2007.
Phil Hughes, just 21 years old, logged his best effort Wednesday after a three-start slide, the backstory to the Alex Rodriguez Show, and the identically aged Chamberlain unknowingly put himself in position to become the ninth Yankees pitcher to log his first victory in 2007 -- an unthinkable achievement, considering the track record of an organization that freely dispensed young talent in favor of veteran presence.
"It's exciting for me to be here as long as I've been here, and then all of a sudden you've got this crop of young arms that have come along," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "We're accelerating this stuff more and more these days, and giving the kids the experience at this level. It's working out more times than not."
One of Torre's favorite illustrations for the perpetual coming-of-age story that has become a welcome sidebar to the Yankees' highlight reel is his own experience. Torre's big league debut came in 1960 with the Milwaukee Braves, and he recalls looking at a fastball zip by. The baseball came from 60 feet and six inches, and it didn't behave differently just because the pitch had been delivered by a person in a Major League uniform.
"I can hit that," Torre recalls thinking.
In the cases of Hughes, Chamberlain and Kennedy, they can throw that. But maybe the most important figure for all three young pitchers, at least in recent days, has been the figure lurking in the shadows. Triple-A pitching coach Dave Eiland, who pitched parts of four seasons in New York from 1989-91, reassumed his old digs last week to help prepare Kennedy for Tampa Bay.
The 41-year-old Eiland has been kept busy, overseeing Kennedy's first Yankee Stadium mound session in an empty building -- thwack, the ball echoed off 55,000 seats as it met bullpen catcher Roman Rodriguez's glove -- before administering a few key tweaks during Hughes' most recent bullpen performance, resuming a relationship formed last season at Double-A Trenton.
"A lot of times, you don't really feel what you're doing wrong," Hughes said. "That's why it's nice having Dave here. He saw me a lot last year and this year in Trenton and Scranton. He really knows what I need to do."
|"This game is set up for you to fail. I understand that's going to happen. ... When it does happen, you have to respond and understand that that's part of the game."|
|-- Joba Chamberlain|
The time investment has been wise, considering the stakes. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre may be involved in a postseason series, but Hughes, Kennedy and Chamberlain -- all Triple-A Yankees at various points this season -- have much more at stake, assigned to figure out Major League life on the fly.
"If any of these young guys can handle it, they can, because of their makeup," Eiland said. "They stay under control of themselves, and they don't seem to get rattled. If they do, they hide it well. They're pros. They're mature beyond 21 and 22 years of age."
Physical gifts aside, the trio's most impressive trait has been their levelheadedness and professionalism, said Eiland.
Chamberlain may well be the most boisterous of the bunch, quickly gaining chutzpah as his 12 1/3 scoreless inning streak extended. Torre joked that the carefully protected Chamberlain shouldn't be allowed to give up a run until 2008, but Chamberlain cautions that this streak won't -- can't -- last forever.
"This game is set up for you to fail," Chamberlain said. "I understand that's going to happen. You've just got to go out and keep attacking the zone. When it does happen, you have to respond and understand that that's part of the game. That's going to be the big test."
So while Chamberlain still gets the oohs and ahhs as he wanders New York, unmistakable with his thick build and swagger, Hughes and Kennedy both own a quieter confidence.
Not that any of the three demand to be acknowledged or looked at. As Kennedy said, that makes him the lucky one: "Everybody knows Joba, but they don't know who I am. I don't mind that at all."
"Just being around them for a period of time, you see how they handle themselves," Eiland said. "It's not only on the mound, but in the clubhouse. They're not guys that are loud talking. They're always willing to learn and always asking questions."
Of course, it helps that there are voices willing to answer those queries. Kennedy -- who feared that the clubhouse would be an "off-to-yourself type of feeling" before he actually experienced it -- said that he hoped to spend some time picking the brains of Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina, particularly on the topics of how to deal with a young, scrappy Royals club.
Chamberlain's first Major League locker was issued a thin wall away from Roger Clemens' belongings, no chance assignment. And Hughes has benefited all season long from veteran presence, dating back to Legends Field, when he was deposited into Derek Jeter's clubhouse neighborhood.
Having that kind of support system has eased the transition for all involved -- for the Yankees, suddenly placing their trusts in a foreign youth movement, and for the players, who understand that the way things work now aren't necessarily the way they were just a few years ago.
"It's been positive," Hughes said. "When I got here [in August], Shelley [Duncan] was here, and then Joba and Ian. It's good to have that young blend in a locker room [with other] guys coming up. You don't feel like the one sole guy in the group. You can share the good and bad that come with being up here."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.