Kelly ends drought vs. Dodgers with gem in postseason debut

October 8th, 2023

LOS ANGELES -- Perched atop the bench in the visitors’ dugout,  patiently waited his turn to take the Dodger Stadium mound on Saturday night.

Sixteen times Kelly had faced this Dodgers team across his five-year big league career. He'd never beaten them. Now, here was Kelly, slated for his first postseason start -- and, naturally, this was his opponent.

Of course, Kelly had plenty of time to ponder all of this. Because, by the time he finally took the mound, his offense had staked him to a six-run lead, roughing up Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw during a top half of the first inning that lasted 23 minutes.

“I'm watching our guys beat up on one of the best pitchers that we've ever seen in our lives -- and watching them do it in the first game I've ever pitched in the playoffs,” Kelly said. “I'm just trying to enjoy it, kind of take it all in, while also walking the fine line of being able to stay focused, knowing that's a good team over there, and they can put up a lot of runs in a hurry.”

Kelly walked that line expertly. While the D-backs’ offense poured it on, Kelly did not give the Dodgers an inch. He pitched 6 1/3 scoreless frames in a statement 11-2 Game 1 victory.

In those 16 regular-season starts against L.A., Kelly was 0-11 with a 5.49 ERA. No pitcher in history had entered a postseason start with a worse winless record against an opponent he was about to face.

“He had a mindset going into this that he wasn't going to let anything like that happen to him again,” said D-backs manager Torey Lovullo. “I think he took it personal. And he went out there executed at a very, very high level.”

Kelly became the first D-backs starter to go at least six scoreless frames in a postseason start since Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson and Miguel Batista all did so in the 2001 World Series. He kept the Dodgers off-balance with a fairly simple mix: He filled up the strike zone with a bunch of fastballs and cutters, while using his changeup for whiffs when he needed them.

“I think the main reason why today ended up better than [past starts against the Dodgers] is the aggressiveness in the zone and being able to get ahead of people,” Kelly said. “That team over there, when you get behind them, they're really good at controlling the zone and not swinging at pitches out of the zone. I made it a point to be aggressive.

“And with that nine-run lead, it made it a lot easier to do.”

Indeed, after Kelly kept the Dodgers off the board in the bottom of the first, the D-backs tacked on three more in the second. Kelly spent most of his night pitching with a lead that was probably insurmountable.

He wasn’t taking any chances. Kelly allowed only three hits. He was removed in the top of the seventh inning after his second walk ran his pitch count to 89. 

When Lovullo emerged from the dugout, Kelly curled his lip. He didn’t want to leave. In what he would later call the biggest game of his career, he hadn’t allowed a run against one of the sport’s best offenses. Lovullo explained that the D-backs would need Kelly again soon enough.

“I had a chance to keep going with him a little bit,” Lovullo said, “but I told him, ‘I want to preserve every pitch I possibly can. We're up 10-0, and it doesn't make a lot of sense to ask you to go any further than this.’ He understood.”

Kelly strolled off the mound, hardly showing any emotion until he approached the dugout. That’s when he patted his chest as he looked in the direction of the D-backs’ family section.

A couple hours later, Kelly sat at the podium beneath the Dodger Stadium concourse and recounted his day. Sure, there were a few nerves, he said. But he, uh, had a family issue on his mind.

“My dad actually missed his flight this morning,” Kelly said. “So I had to kind of scramble, figure that part out. I think maybe that might have been -- even though at the time I was a little pissed -- I think that might have been a good distraction.”

Kelly turned his gaze directly to the camera in the press conference room.

“So thanks, Dad, for not getting to the airport early enough.”

He turned back and continued: “But I try to just stay as even as I can, and I think I did a pretty good job.”

Scoreless ball against his longtime nemesis in his first postseason start? Hard to do it much better than that.