PITTSBURGH -- Three weeks into the season, the Pirates are getting their closer back.
Manager Derek Shelton said Wednesday that right-hander Keone Kela will be active for the Pirates’ series against the Reds, which begins Thursday at Great American Ball Park. Kela has been on the COVID-19 injured list after testing positive before the start of Summer Camp, and his return will provide a significant boost to Pittsburgh’s bullpen.
“I’m really excited. It’s been a long time waiting, going through that quarantine process,” Kela said. “It feels good to be back in the clubhouse, ready to rock and roll with the guys.”
Kela will fill the spot on the active roster left open Tuesday when starting pitcher Joe Musgrove was placed on the 10-day injured list. The Pirates will need to make a corresponding move to clear a spot for Kela on their 40-man roster.
The Pirates have dealt with almost nothing but bad news in their bullpen this season, with four of their top relievers -- Kyle Crick, Nick Burdi, Michael Feliz and Clay Holmes -- going on the injured list since Opening Day. So being able to slot Kela into a high-leverage role should restore some order to Pittsburgh’s relief corps, with Shelton now better able to work backward from the ninth inning.
“On multiple levels, it’s a lot of good things. All positive things,” Shelton said. “No. 1, getting him back in our clubhouse and his leadership and the person he is, I’m excited about that. Secondly, the guy that we talked about being our closer the second day of Spring Training is now back in the fold.”
Kela said he reported to Pittsburgh a few weeks before Summer Camp began, hoping to start the season on schedule. After testing positive for COVID-19, he had to self-quarantine and isolate himself while waiting to produce two negative tests at least 24 hours apart. Kela hoped that moment would come sooner than it did, but he did what he could to stay in game shape despite a lack of workout equipment.
Trying to keep his distance from others while also wanting to keep his arm in shape, Kela lugged around a bag of baseballs and threw into a net at various parks around Pittsburgh. Kela’s workouts took him everywhere from the South Side to McKeesport, from Turtle Creek to the Pittsburgh Zoo parking lot.
Kela said he mixed in push-ups, sit-ups, sprints and agility work every day during his time in quarantine. At one point, he said, he practiced fielding his position by bouncing balls off the pillars of the Fort Duquesne Bridge.
"I was low-key, man. I was trying to snoop around to find different parks. If I saw that there was anybody around, running or anything, I just tried to stay away,” Kela said. “I've seen Pittsburgh now during this quarantine.”
Kela, who has put together a 2.40 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 48 appearances with the Pirates, feels like he’s ready to contribute right away. The 27-year-old righty tested his stuff by facing his teammates twice in live batting practice, and he was pleased with the results.
“I don’t really feel like I’ve lost much of the pep in my step. The ball’s coming out hot. Curveball is sharp. I feel like I have my command,” Kela said. “I’m convicted when I’m up there. I have confidence. I don’t feel like the quarantine necessarily knocked me off my game. I’m just excited to get out there and compete with the guys.”
If Kela can pitch the way he did when healthy last season, he could help the Pirates on two fronts. Most immediately, he will help stabilize and lead an inexperienced bullpen. And with the Trade Deadline looming on Aug. 31, he could be Pittsburgh’s most valuable trade asset.
Shelton declared Kela the club’s closer after their first Spring Training workout in February, so Kela will likely be used in a traditional role. But Shelton said Kela made himself available in any situation, telling the manager and pitching coach Oscar Marin, “Pitch me when you want to pitch me. If you need to get outs, get outs.”
“Even though he named me the closer, I still feel like that’s a title and label that has to be earned year in, year out,” Kela said. “With the way that we’ve been playing ball, I just want to be able to get out there to secure the innings that are most important for us to move forward and put a dub on the board at the end of the night. If I have to face 3-4-5 in the eighth inning because that’s the most pivotal inning, that’s what I’m here for.
“I know I’m a high-leverage guy. I expect to be put in those situations. I know the guys playing behind me and the guys in the dugout expect me to be able to handle my own in those situations as well.”