PHOENIX — When Kirk Gibson makes a mound visit, it usually is to make a pitching change. This one was to make a point. Strongly.
Gibson looked Ian Kennedy in the eye and delivered a message that lip readers might not want to pass along to their children when he went out in the second inning Sunday, after Kennedy had permitted seven of the Brewers’ first 12 batters to reach base.
Kennedy settled down after Gibson left, but it was not in time for the Diamondbacks to overcome an early four-run deficit in a 5-1 loss to the Brewers on Sunday, ending a three-game winning streak.
The D-backs finished the pre-All-Star-break portion of the season by winning eight of their last 12, and they hold a 2 1/2-game lead over the Dodgers in the NL West, but one of the mysteries is how they have done well that with Kennedy, their Opening Day starter, struggling as much as he has.
Kennedy, 3-6 with a 5.42 ERA, has given up 29 runs and 50 hits in seven starts since his last victory, which came June 1 against the Cubs in Chicago. Three of those were quality starts, but in the others he bore only a faint resemblance to the pitcher who had an NL-high 36 victories tin 2011-12, more than Clayton Kershaw or Matt Cain or Adam Wainwright.
So after the Brewers scored three runs in the first inning — when the first four batters had two-strike singles — and got another run on two singles and walk in the second, Gibson had something to say.
He spoke about being more aggressive. Kennedy listened and nodded.
“It was a locker-room talk,” Gibson said, refusing to get specific.
“I just thought it needed to be said. I think it was well-received. He needed to get his butt going. He needed to pick it up, and he did. Give him credit for that. I’d like to see him do it right out of the gate.”
Kennedy then retired seven in a row before giving up a home run to Logan Schafer, but Gibson was not displeased with that pitch. Schafer hit a 3-2 fastball on the inside corner, pulling his hands in and lifting the ball just inside the right-field foul pole
“He moved the ball around more and threw the ball with more conviction,” Gibson said. “He’s busting his tail. He’s frustrated with his performance. He’s healthy, and he can throw the ball better. I know that, and he knows that.”
Kennedy also kept Gibson’s exact words to himself, but there was no mistaking the meaning.
“It was basically to make adjustments. I knew if I didn’t, you’re out of the game,” Kennedy said. “He didn’t say that, but I knew what he meant. I know he expects a lot out of me, and I expect a lot out of myself.”
Kennedy has had a frustrating first half on several fronts. He underwent national scrutiny and received some national criticism when he hit Yasiel Puig and Zack Greinke with pitches in the June 11 brawl game at Dodger Stadium, when the Dodgers rushed the field after Kennedy hit Greinke in the seventh inning. Kennedy received a 10-game suspension amid speculation that he intentionally threw at the Dodgers, something Gibson and Kennedy vehemently deny.
Asked to sum up his pre-All-Star-break work, Kennedy was blunt.
“Terrible. A lot of crazy things going on. I’m not pitching to my abilities every once in a while. Very inconsistent. Inconsistent would probably be the word,” he said.
The D-backs do not appear to be planning any rotation changes in the near future. Gibson said before the game that Kennedy will start the first game of a three-game series in San Francisco that begins Friday.
And when Brandon McCarthy returns later in the month, Gibson talked about moving Randall Delgado out of the rotation and into the bullpen as a second long reliever to pair with Josh Collmenter. Delgado has five quality starts in his six outings since joining the rotation, but Kennedy’s resume is quite a bit thicker.
Catcher Miguel Montero has caught almost all of Kennedy’s starts the last three years, and he said it appeared that Kennedy was aiming his changeup early Sunday, which slowed his arm speed, something hitters are paid to notice. Several of the Brewers’ early hits were on changeups.
“When his arm speed is slower, it is easy to recognize the pitch, and it is less sharp, rather than be aggressive with it. If you bounce it, you bounce it. Give the hitters the same arm speed all the time,” said Montero, whose home run in the fifth was the D-backs’ only offense against Brewers starter Wily Peralta.
“He needs to be aggressive. It’s been a tough year. Hopefully these next four days will refresh him and he’ll get a new start for the second half. Hopefully it will clear his mind a little bit and get him away from the field.”