Young guns aim for the Bronx

2006 first rounders rising rapidly

By Caleb Pardick / Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees | August 1, 2007 6:00 AM

Ian Kennedy is trying his hardest not to crack a smile.

He's trying to finish up-without giggling-an on-camera interview before heading up to the clubhouse to relax for the two hours he has left until the first pitch of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's tilt with Louisville.

He can't.

That's because he's distracted, not by worries about the future or hopes of one day making it to the big leagues, but by something far more distinct: the backside of teammate Joba Chamberlain, just behind the camera, bouncing to the batting practice beats blaring over the PNC Field public address system.

At the sight of his comrade's smile, Chamberlain, the big kid trapped in the body of a 21-year-old, executes a Jeter-esque fist pump just to the right of his square jaw.


So goes life when you're in your early-20s and on the fast track to the Bronx.

So goes life for Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain.

The duo has been tearing up the minor leagues all year, first at Class-A Tampa, then at Double-A Trenton, before rolling into Moosic, Pa., together on July 24.

"Sometimes I wake up and look around and try to figure out where I'm at," Chamberlain said, "because I haven't really been able to spend too much time at any one place yet this year. But that's been an awesome feeling, too."

Chamberlain, the Yankees' 6-foot-2, 230-pound grip-it-and-rip-it fireballer capable of bringing triple-digit fastball heat, has been nothing short of spectacular in his first season of professional baseball, tallying a 9-2 overall record and a 2.53 ERA in 16 games between three levels of the minor leagues.

The husky right-hander took a less-than-glamorous path to professional baseball. He played three years of college ball (the first at Division II Nebraska-Kearney, the next two at Division I Nebraska-Lincoln) before being selected in the supplemental first round as the 41st overall selection of the 2006 draft.

In his only season at NU-Kearney, Chamberlain showed flashes of his future mastery of the strike zone, leading the Lopers in ERA (5.23) and strikeouts (49) despite tallying a 3-6 record.

In 2005, for NU, Chamberlain had his best collegiate season, going 10-2 with a 2.81 ERA and striking out 130 in 118.2 innings over 18 starts. He struck out more than 100 batters again in 2006, leading the team with 102, but went just 6-5 with a 3.93 ERA in 14 games.

Chamberlain, however, didn't go to college immediately after high school, deciding to instead stay home to help pay the bills with and for his father, Harlan, who was stricken with polio as a child. He went to work toiling for the Lincoln maintenance department, a job that he now says didn't even once make him doubt himself.

"I was out there, cleaning bathrooms and working on fields from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 every day for Lincoln parks and rec. It was really just to help out at home a little bit, but it's one of those paths that made me who I am today and that I wouldn't change for the world."

Who he is today is one of the Yankees' top pitching prospects who has been on a meteoric rise through the minor leagues.

For Class-A Tampa, where he started the year, Chamberlain went 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA in seven starts before being called up to Trenton on June 12. There, he went 4-2 and compiled a 3.43 ERA with 64 strikeouts in 39.1 innings. To date in 2007, he's been a strikeout machine, fanning 128 and issuing just 27 walks.

Folks outside the Yankees' organization have taken note of Chamberlain's stellar year as well, rewarding him with a selection to the United States' team in the annual Futures Game, which was played as a part of All-Star weekend in San Francisco's AT&T Park on July 8. In the game, Chamberlain yielded one hit, one run, one walk and whiffed one batter in one inning.

With all the success he's been having, being able to take the season in stride with Kennedy has brought a sense of satisfaction to Chamberlain's season as well.

"It's all been fun, but the biggest thing about it is that it's been more fun just being able to do it with Ian," Chamberlain said.

"I've never had a brother, and he's been the closest thing I've had to that. He's one of my best friends and it's been more fulfilling to have a season like this with someone like him."

Kennedy's rise to stardom, however, was a bit more direct.

As the Yankees' first-round draft choice and the 21st overall selection of the 2006 draft, he entered the organization as a much-ballyhooed prospect after three seasons at the University of Southern California.

The six-foot, 195-pound right-hander finished third on the all-time strikeouts list for USC with 380, and second all-time in strikeouts per nine innings with 10.99, behind only Mark Prior, who whiffed 11.52 in his two seasons with the Trojans in 2000 and 2001.

Kennedy, who utilizes a slider and curveball to go with his mid-90s fastball, went 24-12 with a 3.09 ERA in three years with USC, with his best season coming in 2005, a year in which he went 12-3 with a 2.54 ERA and struck out 158 in 117 innings of work.

Like Chamberlain, the So-Cal hurler with a head of hair that looks like it belongs on a surfer somewhere and who's perpetually smiling had his own opportunity to represent the United States. Kennedy played for the U.S. National Team in 2004 and 2005, leading the team in strikeouts with 40 in 2004 and going 4-1 with a 2.89 ERA in 2005.

In 21 games (20 starts) split between Tampa, Trenton and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the 22-year-old is 11-2 with a minuscule 1.76 ERA in 117.2 frames.

While the similarities between the two pitchers are no doubt numerous, Kennedy said their differences in pitching style are what, more than anything, have enabled them to succeed.

"Joba and I have taken the same path all year, but we're totally different pitchers. He's more of a hard-throwing guy, where I'm a little bit more finesse, but because we're not exactly the same, it's been fun to work off of each other to make each other better."

Like everything else this year, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's newest right-handers were summoned together into the office of Trenton manager Tony Franklin after the Thunder's game on July 23.

"When the manager told me 'I want to speak to you in my office,' I'm thinking, 'did I do something wrong, did I break any rules?'" said Kennedy, who was promoted to Trenton on June 5. "Then I saw Joba walking in behind me and I thought 'This could be good.'

"Then he told us we were going up, and it's this feeling you get, you just can't stop smiling."

Like Kennedy, Chamberlain said the news of his promotion to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre came as a surprise.

"I didn't really know what was going on when I got called in. I didn't expect it this early on and it was just so sudden I could hardly believe it."

In staying with the anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better theme that's permeated their seasons, both Kennedy and Chamberlain were dazzling in their Triple-A debuts.

Chamberlain's came on July 25 against Louisville, a game in which he picked up the win and allowed just four singles while striking out 10 batters in five scoreless innings. His success continued in his next appearance, on July 30 at Rochester, when he struck out the side in one inning of relief in what may have been a trial run to see if the right-hander could work out of the bullpen to help New York, which traded right-handed reliever Scott Proctor on Tuesday, for the stretch run.

Kennedy didn't get a decision in his debut, on July 28 against Rochester, but his performance was outstanding as well, surrendering just two hits-both singles-and whiffing six in six frames.

But the newest arms in the Triple-A Yankees' rotation aren't satisfied with where they are. Not yet.

"It's a really good feeling too know that we got here this fast, because you know you're doing something right," Kennedy said. "This year has been really special for us, and hopefully they can use us in the big leagues sometime soon."

And if that does happen, and Kennedy and Chamberlain somehow end up-together-in New York before the year is over?

It would be just another step along the way for the duo, the culmination of a brilliant season in which a pair of pitchers with incredibly bright futures have become, for the better, inextricably linked.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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