PHOENIX -- Merrill Kelly isn’t going to light up a radar gun or dazzle you with stuff, so maybe that’s why he tends to fly under the radar when people talk about some of the better pitchers in baseball.
But when he carves up a lineup like he did against the Red Sox on Sunday afternoon in the D-backs’ 4-2 win at Chase Field, you can understand why he’s been such a valuable piece for Arizona since coming over from Korea before the 2019 season.
It’s not that any one of his pitches will wow you, but you put them all together and voila, you’ve got an outstanding pitcher.
Kelly allowed just one run over 6 1/3 innings while striking out 10. Over his last six starts, he is 5-0 with a 2.41 ERA.
It prompted Red Sox manager Alex Cora to compare Kelly to a Hall of Famer.
“That’s pitchability,” Cora said of Kelly. “We put good at-bats [on him], we got to 3-2 counts and all that, but he made pitches. He started mixing it up. He can pitch. In an era that people talk about overpowering stuff and all that, his command is perfect, similar to back in the day to like [Greg] Maddux, he can put it wherever he wants to. Like a little bit off the plate, a little bit off the plate, but then he’ll get back to the zone.”
Kelly is not a strikeout pitcher per se, but this was his second start this year in which he reached double digits in strikeouts. Last year he did not record any 10-plus strikeout games.
“You gotta tip your hat,” Cora said. “He's one of the best in the league and at least we battled with him, but we didn't finish it.”
After dropping the first two games of the Red Sox series, the D-backs felt they had a pretty good read on how to attack Boston’s lineup.
“I think that team does a good job of making you throw strikes,” Kelly said. “And just from the reports that I was looking at, it seemed like a lot of them were passive early. I threw some good changeups, and I think when I started landing the changeup and throwing it where they had to honor it, I just think it opened up the hard stuff a little bit.”
It also had the Red Sox looking for offspeed stuff when Kelly got to two strikes, but instead the right-hander went with his fastball -- either cutter or sinker -- which confused the Boston hitters and they wound up taking a called third-strike against him six times.
It was a career high in strikeouts looking for Kelly, and it was one shy of tying the team record.
Kelly fanned Masataka Yoshida (looking, of course) to end the sixth, and as he walked off the mound, he knew he had thrown 92 pitches. He also was aware of the fact that Arizona manager Torey Lovullo likes to read a pitcher’s body language in those situations when deciding whether to leave a hurler in.
“I caught him kind of staring at me,” Kelly said. “I just kind of gave him a nod. Especially with how I felt after the sixth, punching out the side, I definitely wanted to go back out there for the seventh.”
Lovullo let Kelly go out for the seventh, and Kelly retired the first batter before allowing a single and a walk. That ended his day, and the bullpen was able to hang on to save the win.
With the victory, the D-backs snapped a three-game losing streak and avoided a sweep by the Red Sox. With May almost over, they have yet to sweep, or be swept, in a series all year.
“I think that just shows that we turn the page pretty well,” Kelly said. “I just don’t think we allow the negativity to creep in.”