Kelly finds changeup, Kyle Nelson aims to stay in the big leagues

March 14th, 2024

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Like the sun rising in the east, Diamondbacks starter has always been able to count on his changeup.

But a funny thing happens in spring sometimes: you work so much on pitches that need work and you might lose your feel for those that don't.

Kelly felt that way after his first Spring Training start, during which he focused on honing his slider. Before his second, he gave the trusty changeup some love. The version he threw eight times in three innings against the Rockies in Wednesday's 7-5 loss was much closer to the pitch Kelly's used to.

"I put some work into it this week," Kelly said. "I just needed to throw it a little bit more."

The overall results were a mixed bag. Kelly allowed a leadoff single on a changeup to Charlie Blackmon, gave up a double on a cutter and hung a slider to Jacob Stallings. He also characteristically emptied his arsenal in three innings, throwing six different pitches en route to striking out four and allowing two runs.

Kelly is slated to make two more spring starts before the beginning of the regular season.

Kyle Nelson hoping to avoid spring cut finally

There may be no player in camp with a resume as contradictory as 's. Over the past two years, the left-handed reliever has appeared in 111 games for Arizona, pitching to a 3.39 ERA. He's been a relied-upon bullpen piece and was trusted to pitch in last year's World Series. The 27-year-old has consistently shown he can get big league hitters out.

He's also hoping to avoid being cut in Spring Training for the third year in a row.

That's been Nelson's fate for the last two years. In 2022 and 2023, Nelson was among the final players sent out to Minor League camp as Opening Day loomed. It hardly surprised him the first time -- he was new to the organization, which had signed veteran lefty Oliver Pérez late in camp. His banishment was short-lived anyway, with Arizona summoning him back to the big leagues four games into the season. Nelson went on to post a 2.19 ERA in 43 appearances.

Clearly, he could hang, but the following spring, it happened again. This time, the team had signed lefty Andrew Chafin and bumped Nelson down the depth chart. With a week left in camp, Arizona optioned him to Triple-A.

Before the season started, he was back, called upon to replace injured lefty Joe Mantiply. For the first time, he'd cracked the Opening Day roster. That was the goal, but he admits the initial rejection stung.

"Last year, I was a little more hurt by it," Nelson said. "I tried not to show them that, but in my head, it just put even more of a chip. 'You did this to me once and I proved you wrong. You did it to me again and I'm going to prove you wrong again.'"

He hopes he doesn't have to prove it a third time. The lefty spent the entire 2023 season in the Majors, boosting his strikeouts, limiting his walks and posting a 3.14 ERA through the first five months. But things went poorly in September -- Arizona manager Torey Lovullo chalked it up to fatigue -- and Nelson finished with a 4.18 ERA in 68 appearances.

This positions Nelson as a contender to make the team but less than a lock. His chances depend on how many lefties the Diamondbacks choose to carry. Mantiply figures to be one of them. Andrew Saalfrank, who impressed in high-leverage situations last postseason, might be another. The rest of the bullpen is filled with established arms on big league deals, meaning someone with a solid MLB track record inevitably will be left without a chair.

So, as experience has persistently taught him, Nelson takes little for granted.

"You still have to pitch well moving forward," he said.

He's looked OK in four outings so far -- two clean appearances, two imperfect ones, a 4.50 ERA -- although a minor groin injury may delay his fifth by a few days. And even if history repeats itself and he's cut for the third year in a row, odds are he'll end up playing a sizeable role in the Majors anyway.

"He's persevered his whole career. He's been a fighter his whole career," said Lovullo. "He's always breaking down walls in front of him."