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D-backs pitcher Merrill Kelly ‘getting out of his own way’ in 2020

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly (29) delivers a pitch against the Texas Rangers in the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, July 28, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)

Merrill Kelly was up-and-down in the 2019 season.

The former Korean Baseball League pitcher was given a shot with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team not far from Arizona State University, where Kelly played his college ball. In his first six starts, he had a 3.60 ERA, but he regressed to a 5.31 ERA in his next 21 starts. Kelly had difficult conversations with manager Torey Lovullo and was on the brink of losing his rotation spot.

His season settled down and he had three starts of no runs allowed in his last five to finish the season. In his first start of the 2020 season on Tuesday, he was dealing once again.

The 31-year-old started his second MLB season by taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning.

“He was aggressive last night,” Diamondbacks assistant GM Jared Porter told Arizona Sports’ Doug & Wolf. “He attacked them.”

Porter said Kelly had conversations with pitching coach Matt Herges, bullpen coach Mike Fetters and pitching strategist Dan Haren prior to him taking the mound in Texas on Tuesday. But another key factor to the lights-out performance might just be Kelly’s comfort level.

“I think the majority of it is mental,” Kelly told Doug & Wolf. “As far as my ability, I think that’s always been there. But I think I kind of just didn’t allow myself to show it last year. I was taking a lot of thoughts on, ‘I’m the new guy, I’m the guy they signed from Korea,’ trying to get used to all the guys on my team and also trying to get used to all of the hitters I’m trying to get out. I think I got caught up in the idea that I was in the big leagues, rather than just being where my feet are and knowing that I belong here and that I can compete here and that I can get these guys out and that I am a part of this team.

“I think this year that I’m finally allowing myself to get out of my own way.”

The Diamondbacks could use a pitcher who can routinely pitch like Kelly did on Tuesday, or like he did in his last five starts of 2019. Arizona started this year out 1-3 after a four-game, season-opening series in San Diego, wherein a D-backs’ starting pitcher went four innings or fewer in three of the four games (Madison Bumgarner went 5.2 in the opener).

“[Kelly] has four pitches that we feel like are all average or better,” Porter said. “He’s throwing his changeup harder this year, which is good. He’s actually getting swings and misses with a hard changeup, which is great because it can also become a groundball pitch. … Just the explosive life on his four-seam fastball [last night] with kind of some rise and some cut to it. He had those [Texas] hitters off-balance all night.”


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