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Kennedy sharp in latest outing

Kennedy sharp in latest outing

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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Ian Kennedy may have worked into the fifth inning without allowing a walk on Thursday, but the best example of his control came after his arm had already been iced.

Leaning against a concrete wall completing a television interview, Kennedy was finished for the day at Knology Park when Yankees manager Joe Girardi tried to good-naturedly distract him.

Girardi waved his hands frantically, made a funny face and hopped from one foot to the other.

Kennedy kept his focus, chatting amiably into the camera with nary a smile or a smirk. A business-like approach has helped the 23-year-old to this point, and in Girardi's estimation, it is what will continue to assist him as he wins a spot on his first Opening Day roster.

"He's so consistent in what he does," Girardi said. "He knows it's about location and changing speeds. He's learned how to fight through things if he's not as sharp as he wants to be early in the game. That's what makes him so successful."

Making his third spring start and fourth appearance, Kennedy garnered successful results out of a tweaked pregame preparation program. First innings have always been a rough patch for the right-hander, even dating back to his collegiate days at USC, so strength and conditioning coach Dana Cavalea worked this week to modify the hour or so before Kennedy takes the mound.

"I felt a lot better," Kennedy said. "I felt like I was getting out there and finding that release point. Some were up but I was around the strike zone."

Kennedy said that he began his warm up a little earlier, losing a little bit of time usually devoted to keeping a pair of headphones on and mentally preparing. There's more physical activity this way, and given the early returns -- 4 1/3 innings of one-run, six-hit ball, with four strikeouts -- it should be a trend that continues.

"Today was the sharpest he's been, and that's a good sign for us," Girardi said.

With Joba Chamberlain having been dispatched to the bullpen, Kennedy is virtually assured of a spot in New York's starting rotation, as long as he stays healthy in his final two turns through.

It is a rotation heavily reliant on youth. Veteran Chien-Ming Wang will start on Opening Day and left-hander Andy Pettitte has promised about 15 victories to the season total. Mike Mussina has looked sharp in Spring Training, but after he lost his spot in the rotation last August, some are suspect about what Mussina will be able to contribute at age 39.

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That makes it all the more important what players like Kennedy and Phil Hughes will be able to contribute.

"There's some youth in our rotation, but this youth has been tested a little bit because they pitched in the month of September last year," Girardi said. "Phil was on the playoff roster and the month of September was very important to this club last year. Everyone goes through ups and downs in the season, but I don't think for them it's going to necessarily be because they haven't been tested."

With 76 pitches under his belt on Thursday, Kennedy will set his sights upon throwing about 90 in a start March 25 against the Indians in Winter Haven.

His final spring appearance will likely have to come in a Minor League or simulated game, since his turn falls on the off-day between the Yankees' final spring game against the Marlins in Miami and Opening Day in the Bronx.

Another good performance on Thursday -- particularly one in which he was able to throw his curveball for strikes behind in the count -- gave Kennedy the confidence that, by that time, everything will be ready to go.

"As soon as you can get your curveball over for strikes, it makes things so much easier," Kennedy said.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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