Kennedy Has Already Earned Spot Among USC Elite

LOS ANGELES–With one season left to pitch at Southern California, Ian Kennedy has already taken his place among Trojan greats inside the school’s hall of fame at Dedeaux Field.

He can stroll through the displays listing USC’s Cy Young Award winners and numerous other honorees and see pictures of Mark Prior, Randy Johnson, Barry Zito . . . and Ian Kennedy.

That’s what happens when you’re a consensus All-American who has already pitched for Team USA in back-to-back summers and earned Pacific-10 Conference pitcher of the year honors as a sophomore.

“Some guys give me a hard time, that it’s going to jinx me,” Kennedy said of his hall of fame picture. “I think it’s just a real honor and awesome to be up there already.”

USC coach Mike Gillespie jokingly told his ace righthander that the picture is coming down if he doesn’t make it to the big leagues, but there seems to be little chance that the 6-foot, 195-pound junior will be anything other than a first-round selection in the 2006 draft.

“You’re talking about a guy that’s going to be on everybody’s radar,” one veteran major league scout said. “He can throw three or four pitches for strikes. He won’t beat himself.”

Fine Company

Kennedy already has posted some staggering numbers in his college career. His 158 strikeouts last season place him fourth on the Trojans’ single-season list, behind just Prior (who recorded a Pac-10 record 202 strikeouts in 2001), Seth Etherton (182 in 1998) and Walt Peterson (172 in 1963). And his 12.15 strikeouts per nine innings ratio was the fifth-best in school history.

“To be compared to Mark Prior and Seth Etherton . . . just to be among those guys is a great honor to me,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s an honor just to pitch for USC and be a No. 1 guy.”

Said Gillespie: “I certainly see him as one of those guys, and to a certain level he’s already demonstrated that.”

While marveling at Kennedy’s command (he issued 38 walks in 117 innings last season) and ability to throw a fastball past a hitter in fastball counts, Gillespie said the pitcher’s best attribute is his competitiveness.

“He never shrinks from a moment no matter who it is and where it is in a game,” Gillespie said. “He’s not a guy who gets timid and questions himself. He really hates to lose.”

Road Warrior

Kennedy said he has been a cutthroat competitor since childhood, hating to lose so much as a game of cards. Maybe that’s why last year, as a sophomore, Kennedy was able to defeat four frontline pitchers–Arizona’s John Meloan, Cal State Fullerton’s Ricky Romero, Long Beach State’s Cesar Ramos and Washington’s Tim Lincecum–all on the road.

“I love pitching those games because I’m the underdog and I’m supposed to lose, but I don’t want to lose,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy, whose best pitch is a fastball he commands in the low 90s, said he has honed command of his curveball, changeup and slider, giving him the option to trust any pitch in any count. That will make the Trojans especially dangerous as they attempt to make their first College World Series appearance since 2001. More importantly, the Trojans expect to earn their first back-to-back regional bids since 2001-2002 and re-establish the program as a national power.

“The fastball in the past has been the pitch to go to,” Kennedy said. “I feel I can throw it on the black part of the plate at your knees and you can’t hit it even though you know it’s coming.

“But I have confidence in every one of my pitches, and if a situation calls for a changeup, I’ll throw a changeup.”

Kennedy already might have thrown several prospective suitors a changeup by picking agent Scott Boras as his advisor, but the 21-year-old said that if his soon-to-be agent or his shorter physical stature scare off major league teams, so be it.

“If they don’t want to draft me, that’s fine, they’re going to miss out,” said Kennedy, a 14th-round choice of the Cardinals in 2003 out of La Quinta High, where he teamed with Rockies prospect Ian Stewart. “I’m not really worried about that. I don’t think it really matters because I’m a winner.”

He has the picture to prove it.

Ben Bolch covers college baseball for the Los Angeles Times.