Diamondbacks RHP Merrill Kelly soaking in postseason opportunity

Oct 17, 2023, 3:54 PM | Updated: 4:37 pm

Starting pitcher Merrill Kelly...

Starting pitcher Merrill Kelly #29 of the Arizona Diamondbacks walks to the dugout after being removed during the seventh inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on September 20, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — “If you would have asked me five, six, seven years ago if I would be sitting here talking to you guys right now, I don’t know if I would have seen that light toward the end of that tunnel.”

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly rehashed this hypothetical on Monday, one he’s expressed before during his club’s postseason run this October.

Five years ago, Kelly completed his final season pitching in Korea for the SK Wyverns and had turned 30 years old.

Four MLB seasons later, Kelly is trusted to start one of the biggest D-backs games in decades: He is tasked with being the stopper, trailing 1-0 in the National League Championship Series at the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday.

D-backs general manager Mike Hazen said he was excited to sign Kelly ahead of the 2019 season, hoping he addressed the back of the starting rotation. Instead, Kelly has grown into a dependable top-end starter.

“I’m just trying to kind of soak it all in,” Kelly said on Monday. “I’m trying to not take anything for granted. … Being able to still have these firsts, it kind of gives me a little bit more of an energizing feeling than anything. I just turned 35 the other day, but these games will keep you feeling a lot younger.”

Kelly wrapped up his best statistical regular season to date with a team-best 3.29 ERA for starting pitchers, which ranked No. 11 in MLB. He overcame a blood clot in his right calf that cost him a month and stayed composed despite frustrations stemming from three-straight home starts shortened by hamstring cramping.

Hazen expects to see Cy Young votes for Kelly this year for the first time.

“What we’ve seen with the emergence of his ability to command his stuff, throw multiple pitches, not just rely on extreme velocity, is kind of the old-school way of pitching in a lot of ways and he embodies that to me,” Hazen said during the NLDS. “As he’s gotten older, he’s gotten better.”

Kelly explained before the NLDS that while he was a 30-year-old rookie, he felt at times like a 20-year-old starstruck by the biggest names in the game. He said his sense of belonging has developed along with his confidence to get any hitter out.

“As I’ve matured and gotten older, that’s a big part of why I’ve had the success the last couple of years that I have,” Kelly said.

Kelly gave Arizona six shutout innings in his MLB postseason debut against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series. Using all six of his pitches (cutter, four-seamer, changeup, sinker, curveball, slider), he induced weak contact while pounding the zone to conquer a club that historically plagued him (0-11 in regular season).

Now he’ll enter an environment in Philadelphia that the home team seems to feed off of, the most noted home field this postseason.

The right-hander has seen it up close, as he attended Game 3 of the World Series at Citizens Bank Park last year. He took his brother, Reid, for his birthday (they used to live in the nearby suburb of Bryn Mawr for over four years before eventually moving to the Valley).

Kelly remember thinking he wanted to be on that mound performing on that stage.

His big-game experience includes the NLDS, Korean Series and World Baseball Classic.

“Going back to the Korean Series, obviously their fans — they cheer a little bit differently than we do,” Kelly said. “Each offensive player who comes up to the plate, they have their own fight song. It was about 30,000 people in Seoul, about 15,000 at a time would be singing in unison for whichever hitter was up, and they don’t stop until the next hitter comes up.”

Phillies fans singing along to infielder Bryson Stott’s walk-up song “A-O-K” is probably the closest to that he’ll see on Tuesday.

“Then going into the WBC game, I haven’t obviously heard this place on the field, but I would be very surprised if it trumped that Venezuela game down in Miami,” Kelly added. 

When Kelly’s Team USA teammate and now Phillies shortstop Trea Turner homered on March 18 in the quarterfinal, Kelly said he experienced an atmosphere he’s never seen before.

But the Phillies fans will try to make Tuesday a challenge. Kelly’s comments are already circulating online within a passionate fanbase that doesn’t need much convincing to get on opponents.

“As far as atmospheres, I think this one is just different. It’s a little more hostile and a little more engaging,” Turner responded to Kelly’s comments. “We’ll see what he says after tonight.”

Kelly said postseason adrenaline hits differently, but he’s treating Game 2 the same as any other outing.

“Obviously not make the situation bigger than it already is, keep playing our game, keep doing what we do well,” Kelly said.

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