Keller 'in a good spot,' keeps Rays at bay

Right-hander logs season-high 7 innings, displays effective changeup

May 26th, 2021

The Royals knew they would need to play their best baseball against a red-hot Rays team, which brought an 11-game winning streak into Tuesday night’s series opener at Tropicana Field.

And right-hander Brad Keller turned in his best start of the season and looked every bit like the ace Kansas City needs in a 2-1 win. The Royals have won three straight and seven of 10 on the heels of an 11-game losing streak, improving to .500 (23-23) for the first time since May 8.

It all started on the mound with Keller, who logged seven strong innings and matched his season high with seven strikeouts. The Rays had scored 95 runs in their previous 11 games, slashing .292/.380/.557 as a team over that stretch.

Keller yielded just four hits -- three of them infield singles -- and four walks. It was his deepest outing to date after the Opening Day starter struggled mightily to begin the year. Tampa Bay’s only run against Keller came in the third, when Brett Phillips reached on an infield single back to Keller, stole second and took third on a groundout before scoring on Yandi Díaz’s single.

“Brad was as good as I’ve seen him,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Just a lot of things done very well, all the way through, That was the kind of start we needed from him.”

Keller threw like the pitcher the Royals know and trust, garnering weak contact with his sinker and flashing the biting slider that kept the Rays off balance. He also mixed in a good changeup, a pitch he’s worked on extensively. Keller threw 10 changeups and got four called strikes, along with one swing and miss during Austin Meadow’s nine-pitch strikeout in the fifth inning.

“If he can continue to develop that pitch, it’s going to help everything, and I hope he continues to see it as well as we see it from the side,” Matheny said. “It’s going to be a really good swing and miss pitch from him.”

Keller's tempo was quick. The bulldog mentality was apparent. He dared the Rays to hit his sinker or chase his slider.

“That’s him,” Salvador Perez, who had the game-winning RBI single in the sixth inning, said. “That’s how he pitches. He’s in a good spot right now.”

After posting a 12.00 ERA (16 runs in 12 innings) in his first four starts, Keller has since pitched to a 3.48 ERA (13 runs in 33 2/3 innings in his last six starts). There were times early in the season that Keller’s struggles flummoxed him and the coaching staff. His mechanics were spot on during side sessions between starts, but when he got on the game mound, he would fall back into “bad habits,” as he called them. His fastball command was off, causing him to rely too much on his slider that already was lacking its usual bite.

Three starts ago, Keller talked about how he turned to analytics and video. First, he looked at video and compared his mechanics from last year and this season, noticing that his front side was flying open and inconsistency with his release point. It was causing him to lose depth on the slider, so he worked on getting the shape of his slider back to the way it had been when it was most effective.

“That’s been the biggest issue this year,” Keller said. “I’ve thrown really well in the bullpens, and it’s frustrating because I fix things in my bullpens and it wasn’t translating in the game. I tried to work on that, and I feel like these last few starts, I’ve been able to get over the hump. Even sometimes if I get out of whack a little bit, just kind of limit that and get right back on top, and get back to good mechanics and competing, get the ball down.”

The Royals are going to need Keller to go deep into games like he did on Tuesday. It allowed Matheny to use two relievers, Jake Brentz and Kyle Zimmer, in the final two innings. Brentz pitched a perfect 1 1/3 frames, while Zimmer earned his second save of the season by getting a big double-play ball to end the game. Trusting those two in high-leverage situations is going to be crucial for depth at the back-end of the bullpen, and this was a step toward that.

“We did have some guys that weren’t available, but I want [Brentz and Zimmer] knowing we’ve got faith in them,” Matheny said. “… The more guys that we have ready that have proven that they can pitch those leverage innings against hitters in big situations, the better off we’re going to be in the long run. That was really big for both of those guys tonight.”