'Model of consistency' Kelly eager for Game 1 start vs. nemesis LA

October 7th, 2023

LOS ANGELES -- The champagne had already been sprayed in the clubhouse and the D-backs players were lingering on the American Family Field turf to soak in every last minute of their National League Wild Card Series-clinching victory over the Brewers on Wednesday night.

Sometime around that time, it hit  that he was going to get the ball for Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Dodgers.

“I'm standing here, and I'm a Game 1 starter in the playoffs in the big leagues,” Kelly said, his voice catching ever so slightly. “It is pretty special for me. Obviously, you guys know my journey. You guys know what's transpired since I've been in the big leagues, where I came from.

“So the fact that I'm about to start Game 1 of a playoff series in the big leagues is definitely something I don’t take for granted.”

Kelly’s journey to get to this point took him halfway around the globe to Korea, where he pitched in the KBO from 2015-18 before the D-backs signed him in 2019. Kelly made his big league debut later that year at the age of 30.

Selected by the Rays in the eighth round of the 2010 MLB Draft, Kelly got to Triple-A with Tampa Bay in 2013, but he seemed to stall there before heading to Korea.

Kelly was inconsistent early in 2019 with the D-backs, but after a meeting with manager Torey Lovullo in Milwaukee in August that year, Kelly began to turn things around, and he hasn’t looked back.

“He's a model of consistency,” Lovullo said. “He continues to go out there and grow, and learn every start. And when he came to us, he was a 30-year-old rookie and has just been on an information search ever since. He's pitched in some huge baseball games for us.

“He's delivered and made pitches, and has been able to slow the game down in this stretch drive. He’s just got a really good heartbeat, doesn't get glossy eyed and he can go out and execute a game plan.”

Kelly has pitched in some big games, just not necessarily in the big leagues.

There was the College World Series in 2010 with Arizona State, and then he pitched a pair of games in the KBO Championship Series. This past spring, Kelly started the World Baseball Classic final for Team USA.

“Obviously, the stadiums are a little bit smaller [in Korea] than they are here, but the playoff experience and the loud atmosphere definitely has given me more experience going into these games,” Kelly said. “I think Milwaukee was a good entrance for us for the playoffs. The atmosphere was loud.

“But I think, obviously, Dodger Stadium will be a step up from what Milwaukee was, but it was a good entry point to get our feet wet. I think we're ready and I'm ready. And, like I said, I'm excited.”

Kelly would have started Game 3 of the NL Wild Card Series had the D-backs not swept the Brewers. Instead, Kelly gets the Dodgers, the one team he has not been able to solve in his career.

In 16 career starts against Los Angeles, Kelly is 0-11 with a 5.49 ERA. This year, in two starts at Dodger Stadium, he is 0-1 with a 7.27 ERA.

“It's a bit of a mystery, a bit of a puzzle for me to solve,” Kelly said. “It would be nice to get my first Dodger win in five years in the playoffs.”

Kelly has been diving into the numbers and video with the Arizona coaching and analytics staffs trying to figure out a possible solution.

The Dodgers will similarly be game planning, and that’s something they excel at.

“I think they just prepare really well,” Kelly said. “They do a lot of things that other teams don't. Whatever analytics or preparation department that they have over there, I think they do a really good job of game planning, and I think they do a good job as a lineup, 1 through 9, sticking to that game plan.

“If they go into a game with a certain plan, I think they're ultra committed to it. And even if the first at-bat doesn't go the way they think it was supposed to, they don't really drift from that approach.”

Kelly has come a long way, literally, in his pro career. On Saturday, he wants to take another step with the Dodgers standing in his way.