DENVER -- The D-backs’ starting rotation depth has taken some hits recently. First, Zack Godley and his 7.71 ERA as a starter were moved to the bullpen. Then on Sunday, one of Arizona’s best starters so far this season, Luke Weaver, left his outing against the Giants with a right forearm strain, which later sent him to the injured list.
Manager Torey Lovullo has been looking for some better news on that front, particularly as Weaver’s status remains uncertain and difficult rotation decisions lie ahead.
While the result wasn’t what the D-backs wanted in their 6-2 loss to the Rockies on a frigid Tuesday night at Coors Field, Lovullo got some. For all but one of the 104 pitches Merrill Kelly threw against Colorado over 6 2/3 innings, he threw well in his first career start in Denver’s altitude.
Kelly is 30 years old and has pitched professionally for several years, most recently in the Korea Baseball Organization. But he’s a rookie in the Majors, and with two rotation spots to fill and two other rookies -- Taylor Clarke and Jon Duplantier -- in the mix to take them, Lovullo is looking at potentially relying on a trio of inexperienced hurlers.
That made Kelly’s performance on Tuesday that much more meaningful.
“He showed me he knew where the baseball was going,” Lovullo said. “I was getting terrific feedback from him. He was telling me, and he was executing and showing me.”
Before giving up a go-ahead, two-run homer to Chris Iannetta in the seventh, Kelly had yielded only two runs on five hits, walking one and striking out five in wet, cold conditions; the wind chill had fallen to 39 degrees by the time he left the game.
“People say your stuff is different or your breaking ball might not bite as much [at Coors],” Kelly said. “But as far as all that is concerned, I didn’t really notice too much.”
Kelly took the mound coming off his shortest outing of the season, going 1 2/3 innings and giving up four runs on five hits while walking four over 63 pitches against the Padres in San Diego.
Kelly has had a handful of strong showings, particularly his eight-inning gem against the Red Sox on April 7, in which he allowed one run on four hits, walking none and fanning nine. But there have also been some tough starts, including his outing against the Rays on May 6, in which he was shelled for seven runs in four innings.
The D-backs could sure use the good Kelly right about now, and he knows it.
“For me, coming off the game before, with us kind of hurting a little bit with Weav going down and kind of that toss-up for the [other rotation] spot, just not only today but my goal in general is to go as deep as I possibly can,” Kelly said. “But especially with us in the situation we’re in, it definitely meant a little bit more to get that deep into the game to save the bullpen a little bit.”
Kelly’s four-seam fastball touched 95 mph for the second time this season (also April 1 vs. the Padres). His secondary pitches seemed unaffected by the thin air, and he mixed in his cutter, changeup and curveball effectively before hanging a curve to Iannetta, which he said missed his intended location.
“I think I felt probably the best I have all year,” Kelly said. “Maybe other than the two-seam fastball, I was able to throw everything for strikes. The changeup was there, curveball was pretty good, cutter was probably the best it’s been.”
When the D-backs signed Kelly out of the KBO last offseason, they weren’t necessarily expecting him to become the next Miles Mikolas, whom the Cardinals signed out of Japan before he finished sixth in National League Cy Young voting last year. But they were hoping they had found a reliable starter.
Perhaps now more than ever, they need Kelly to transition from sporadic episodes of success to sustained performance. This outing was a step in that direction, to the extent that Lovullo trusted Kelly to continue in the seventh despite having thrown more than 100 pitches in a tied game.
“What stood out is he was on the attack, from the first pitch to the final blow,” Lovullo said. “I felt like he was in control of the day, and deserved that opportunity. He was in command of the baseball game.”