ARLINGTON, Texas — Since returning from a four-year stint playing for the SK Wyverns in the Korean Baseball Organization, Merrill Kelly regularly resided on that flatteringly unflattering list as among the most underrated pitchers in the majors.
He was durable and persistently above league average, but did it off the main baseball superhighway — for a perpetually losing team in the Mountain time zone. If you were a baseball fan, you knew Kelly. Still, he was never an All-Star, never received a Cy Young vote and just passed his 35th birthday on Oct. 15. Thus, it was possible that this would be his career — a terrific, yet relatively anonymous second act after never making it to the majors initially as a Rays farmhand.
“I think in today’s game where velocity is king, he does it a different way and it might not be noticed as much,” Arizona GM Mike Hazen said.
But what Kelly has done this postseason, notably in his past two starts, can hardly be inconspicuous. Instead, it provides a flatteringly flattering new moniker — big-game pitcher. He has navigated from underappreciated to overwhelming on the October stage.
“It is recognition late, but well-deserved,” Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen offered. “I’m sure part of it is the market we play in. But this guy posts [12th most starts over the past five seasons]. He’s got a feel for five or six pitches.”
In many ways, Kelly is symbolic of this Diamondbacks squad, which keeps rising to the challenges when eyeballs are most focused and the heat most intense. So the baseball-watching public has gotten to better know Corbin Carroll and Alek Thomas, Ketel Marte and Gabriel Moreno. And now Kelly — the No. 2 starter to Gallen, who may finish top five in the NL Cy Young vote for a second straight postseason but has not matched his well-traveled sidekick in October.
Kelly won an NLCS Game 6 elimination game for the Diamondbacks vs. the Phillies with five strong innings and then topped that in Game 2 of the World Series. Against a fierce Texas lineup, Kelly authored seven one-run innings. He walked none. He struck out nine. He challenged the Rangers hitters and won. Thus, so did the Diamondbacks, who have shown an ability to rise — from the worst record to make this tournament, from down three-games-to-two in the NLCS and heading to Philadelphia for Games 6 and 7 and from a devastating World Series Game 1 loss.
The Diamondbacks won 9-1 on Saturday night. They tied the 119th World Series at one-game apiece. The best-of-seven now shifts to Arizona for three games beginning Monday.
Kelly faced two pressure points in Game 2. One was at the outset. The Rangers had won dramatically for them and traumatically for the Diamondbacks in the opener. Corey Seager hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to tie the score with Arizona two outs from winning Game 1 and then Adolis Garcia walked-off the Diamondbacks with an 11th-inning homer.
So to prevent the negativity that could have overflowed from Game 1 to Game 2, Kelly had to shine from the beginning — and he was way better than good, retiring the first 11 Rangers. Through four innings, Kelly needed just 43 pitches. He had thrown a first-pitch strike to 10 of 13 batters, had just one three-ball count and whiffed four against one single.
But Mitch Garver led off the fifth with a homer to draw the Rangers within 2-1. From there on, though, Kelly allowed just one more baserunner via an infield single by Josh Jung, muting the enthusiasm for 42,500 at Globe Life Field. In NLCS Game 6, Kelly held the Phillies to one run in five innings, but was removed to his fury at that point. But here Arizona manager Torey Lovullo trusted him after having to overwork his pen in Game 1 — and was rewarded.
In the sixth and seventh inning, Kelly went six-up, six-down with five strikeouts. Kelly does not overpower as much as overwhelm. Four of his nine strikeouts were looking. He is precise. His changeup is a devastating weapon. He needed just 89 pitches to complete seven innings.
“His stuff doesn’t jump off the table, which I get in today’s game,” Hazen said. “But he can really pitch.”
And Arizona can really execute on both sides of the ball. The Diamondbacks got a homer from Moreno. But this was an offense that Whitey Herzog would have loved. A steal, three sacrifices, just two strikeouts in 37 plate appearances, 6-for-14 with runners in scoring position and as they scored seven runs over the final three innings, they had just one extra-base hit (a Thomas double).
Arizona is pesky, capable and relentless. The 84-win regular-season suspect is 10-4 in this postseason, most impressively 7-3 on the road. Suspicion and anonymity are vanishing. Kelly is representative of the group. In four starts this postseason, he has a 2.25 ERA, a .145 batting average against. You can’t live under the radar when you and your team are thriving in October.