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History-making reliever faces long odds with Pirates

| Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 9:49 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Josh Kinney gives a thumbs up after throwing a bullpen session during spring training at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Josh Kinney (left) talks with Wandy Rodriguez after the pair threw together Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Josh Kinney throws a bullpen session during spring training at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Josh Kinney's career as a big league relief pitcher could not have gotten off to a worse start.

After bouncing around the minors for 5 12 years, plus a three-game stint with an independent league team in Missouri, Kinney was called up by the St. Louis Cardinals. On July 3, 2006, the right-hander made his debut in the top of the seventh inning when he faced Atlanta's Ryan Langerhans.

Langerhans knocked Kinney's first pitch out of the park. Just like that, Kinney had an ERA of infinity and a spot in the record book.

“At the time, there were only (eight) other guys in the history of baseball who gave up a home run on the first pitch — and the announcer for that game (Ricky Horton) was one of them,” Kinney said. “He came down to the clubhouse the next day and told me, ‘Man, you took the monkey off my back.' But from then on, it went pretty good.”

In fact, Kinney's rookie season could not have had a better ending.

The Cardinals won the NL Central by 1 12 games. Kinney picked up the win in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. In the World Series, Kinney made two scoreless outings, and the Cardinals beat the Detroit Tigers in five games.

“I hate to say it, (but) I didn't enjoy it when we were going through it because I was just so wrapped up in the moment of doing my job,” Kinney said. “It wasn't until afterwards that I realized, ‘Wow, we just won the World Series. That's pretty cool.' And it felt like we'd do it again.”

Kinney hasn't pitched in the postseason since. He had Tommy John surgery in March 2007, then needed another operation five months later after breaking his elbow during rehab.

Kinney pitched in 24 games for the Cardinals over 2008-09, then battled through a tough season (a 6.62 ERA in 13 appearances) with the Chicago White Sox in 2011. He has spent the past two seasons with the Seattle Mariners but made only 35 outings in the majors — all in 2012 — in that span.

This past winter, Kinney, 34, signed a minor league contract with the Pirates and was invited to spring training. As he nears the end of his career, Kinney jumped at the chance to pitch for the team he rooted for while growing up in Port Allegany, McKean County.

“My first big league ballgame, I went with my dad down to Three Rivers Stadium and saw Andy Van Slyke, Jose Lind, (Barry) Bonds, (Bobby) Bonilla, Jimmy Leyland and all those guys,” Kinney said. “I had a Pirates hat, the old one with the yellow stripes around it and the flat top. It was cool.”

As a nonroster player, Kinney realizes he faces long odds to start the season in the majors. Plus, the seven pitchers who formed the Pirates bullpen in the postseason last year are in camp with the team. He isn't fazed by the challenge.

After his disastrous first pitch, Kinney thrived in the Cardinals' culture of high expectations. The past three seasons, he played for clubs that were stuck with sub-.500 records. The Pirates tasted success last season and want to do it again.

Kinney hopes to be along for the ride.

“I get to be with a team that's close to home, the team I grew up watching,” Kinney said. “And it's a winning team now. That's pretty special to me. It's probably the biggest reason I wanted to come here. That winning culture is a very special thing in sports. When you're away from that for a while, you miss it.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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