Bickley: Merrill Kelly is the Diamondbacks’ real ace

Oct 28, 2023, 9:16 PM | Updated: 11:32 pm

ARLINGTON, Texas – Semantics don’t matter in the pursuit of a World Series, but some things need to be said:

Merrill Kelly is the ace of the Diamondbacks, not Zac Gallen.

No disrespect to the latter. But anything less would be shortchanging a 35-year-old pitcher who is coming into his own on the biggest stage in baseball.

“I think there’s a little bit of an evolution, a maturity that continues to show up with him in every outing,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “He takes things personally … He’s aware, he’s present, and he’s getting better and better with every start.”

Kelly gave Arizona – his team and the entire state – exactly what we all needed after the sucker-punch defeat in Game 1. He suffocated the power Rangers, yielding just three hits in seven innings, becoming just the 10th pitcher in World Series history to strike out at least nine batters while walking none.

After the team’s wild and woolly 10-walk performance in the opener, Kelly’s master class in high-stakes baseball both liberated and inspired his teammates to a 9-1 victory in Game 2.

“We won this game because of Merrill Kelly,” Lovullo said.

Kelly’s zero-drama outing calmed the nerves, evened the World Series, and saved the bullpen from further attrition. He fulfilled one of the basic requirements of an ace, which is to stop the hemorrhaging and carry his team following a loss. And that was only the beginning.

Legends are born in October, and Kelly’s reputation has soared during the postseason.

He’s already a great local story, a graduate of Desert Mountain High School and a member of the Arizona State team that went to the College Baseball World Series. He might be the rare homegrown product that leads a hometown team to a championship.

But this story resonates beyond the Valley. Kelly spent four years toiling in South Korea, hell-bent on showing 30 Major League clubs what they were missing. He became a rookie at age 30 and is now one of the breakout performers of the 2023 postseason. To wit:

He beat the Dodgers in Los Angeles in Game 2 of the NLDS, even though had an 0-11 record against them previously. That was not only significant. It was a Major League record. No player had ever suffered so many losses without a victory entering a postseason start against a particular team.

Kelly prevailed in Philadelphia in an elimination game, dealing the Phillies their first home loss of the playoffs in their hostile hotbox. And yet nothing compared to his performance on Saturday, where he had many family members in attendance, including a grandmother from Beaumont, Texas, whom he hadn’t seen since 2011.

Kelly’s journey is remarkable. After the game, Kelly spoke of how he’d wake up in South Korea, make his coffee and check out the scores from Major League Baseball. He said he felt miles removed from American baseball, literally and figuratively. But he always knew this day would arrive.

“I definitely had visions and images of me sitting on this podium, for sure,” Kelly said.

Lovullo also pushed all the right buttons. His team was loose. He started Alek Thomas despite the opposing left-handed starter, and Thomas responded with an excellent performance. So did Tommy Pham. So did Ketel Marte, whose 18-game postseason hitting streak is now a baseball record. Even Christian Walker atoned for his hitting woes with a marvelous defensive performance.

Most of all, Lovullo didn’t dare take the ball from Kelly until the game was out of reach. The Diamondbacks manager makes occasional mistakes. We all do. But he’s not an idiot. And only an idiot would’ve stood in Kelly’s way on Saturday.

A night when the team’s real ace delivered in spades.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 – 10 a.m. on Arizona Sports.

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Bickley: Merrill Kelly is the Diamondbacks’ real ace