D-backs need to get Merrill Kelly ready for 1st start after return from WBC

Mar 23, 2023, 7:15 PM | Updated: Mar 24, 2023, 8:47 pm

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly speaks to reporters for the first time after pl...

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly speaks to reporters for the first time after playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz., on March 23, 2023. (Jake Anderson/Arizona Sports)

(Jake Anderson/Arizona Sports)

SCOTTSDALE — Thursday at Salt River Fields marked the return of Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly from the World Baseball Classic.

The 34-year-old right-hander started in Team USA’s 3-2 loss to Japan in the WBC final on Tuesday, but only went 1.1 innings and allowed two earned runs on three hits (one home run) and two walks while striking out one over 36 pitches (21 strikes).

And while the outing didn’t go the way Kelly or manager Torey Lovullo would have wanted it to go, priority No. 1 at D-backs camp now becomes getting him stretched out and ready for his first start of the MLB season, with Opening Day a week away on March 30.

“It was a discussion that (pitching coach) Barry (Enright) and I had via text after Merrill was taken out of the game and we certainly understand why he was taken out of the game,” Lovullo said pregame Thursday.

“But he asked, he said, ‘Do you want to make the call to Miami to see if we can get him to throw another 40 pitches in the bullpen?’ And I said not a chance, there’s no way I’m going do that and it didn’t look like Merrill wanted to either, but we’ll figure that out.”

The D-backs skipper stressed that the health and safety of their players will always be the main focus when ramping up guys for the gauntlet of a 162-game season.

“We feel like he can carry enough of a workload and get up to 65-70 pitches, which will get him ready for his first start,” he said. “Somewhere in that 85-pitch range, we feel comfortable with that, so minimal concern.”

In Kelly’s only other World Baseball Classic start — a 3-2 win over Colombia at Chase Field on March 15 — the righty threw three innings and allowed two earned runs on four hits and two walks while striking out one across 61 pitches (36 strikes).

He also tossed a one-hitter through three innings on 40 pitches while striking out four for Team USA in a 6-0 exhibition win over the Los Angeles Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium on March 9.

And in his only start of spring training thus far on March 3 against the Seattle Mariners — his only experience with the new pitch clock rules — the 34-year-old threw 43 pitches, striking out one and allowing two earned runs on two hits across 2.1 innings.

“It’s definitely a consideration that I had going into the tournament when I found out that we were using last year’s rules,” Kelly said Thursday. “We didn’t have a clock thrown in that first Angels game. I felt like I was actually able to breathe, didn’t feel like I have the clock bearing down my neck.

“I’ve never really been a big worry of the pitch clock. I think I work fast enough where it’s not going to affect me too much but we’ll wait and see.”

So, with Kelly’s pitch count in live games this spring at 43, 40, 61 and 36, it’s no surprise that Lovullo wants to stretch him out closer to the 85-pitch mark before opening the season on the road against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The right-hander, who has yet to throw more than three innings in a single game since September, expects to go at least four frames in his next start on Sunday against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Definitely probably a little bit more behind the eight-ball than I usually am going into the season as far as just pitch count and innings and up and downs,” Kelly said.

“But once the lights turn on once we get to L.A., it’s going be business as usual,” he added. “I’m going take the ball as long as Torey is going give it to me. I’m sure they’ll have a certain plan for me going forward as far as that goes — the first couple starts I would imagine probably be on somewhat of a short leash.”

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