Keller 'pumped' for 2nd Opening Day start

March 20th, 2021

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The news wasn’t so much of a surprise as it was a statement about how the Royals view their leader on the mound.

will be the Royals’ Opening Day starter, manager Mike Matheny told Kansas City media on Saturday. The 25-year-old will make his second Opening Day start on April 1 against right-hander Kyle Gibson and the Rangers at Kauffman Stadium. Keller was slated to start Opening Day in 2020, but he missed the start of the season with COVID-19.

Keller may have been tabbed for Opening Day twice before, but the excitement of being called into the manager’s office for that news doesn’t fade.

“It doesn’t,” Keller said on Saturday. “I was really pumped about it. I had a smile on my face as soon as he told me. Really excited about it, and happy that this organization trusts me to get this season off on a good foot.

“[Matheny said], ‘I think you’re the guy to lead us in the right direction.’ I was pretty excited, no doubt.”

Matheny also laid out the rotation plans for the start of the regular season. After Keller on April 1, the Royals will start left-hander Mike Minor, right-hander Brady Singer and lefty Danny Duffy in that order. The off-days scheduled in the first two weeks of the season means the Royals won’t need a fifth starter until April 16 -- which is part of the reason they optioned left-hander Kris Bubic to Triple-A Omaha on Friday.

Saturday’s announcement was not a shock, after Keller posted a 2.47 ERA over nine starts and 54 2/3 innings in 2020. But it did signal the Royals’ ongoing belief that Keller is becoming the pitching staff’s leader -- not only on the mound but off the field, as well.

“This is our guy,” Matheny said. “This is a statement. To Brad, this is the kind of pitcher we believe that you are. It’s just reinforced. You hope after that first one that they take it to heart that that’s a huge compliment. And now, [they say], 'I want to go do what I need to do to continue to build on that.' When you take on this role, you’re inherently taking on more leadership responsibility … and you take initiative and go outside your comfort zone.”

Keller leads by example with what he does on the mound, but Matheny said that Keller’s next step as a leader is having tough conversations with his teammates when he needs to. Matheny hopes that the reinforcement of being the ace of the staff gives Keller the confidence to do that.

“Brad’s not a, ‘Hey, let’s have a meeting, close the door,’ kind of guy,” Matheny said. “He doesn’t need to be. But what he does need is to have some of those real and tough conversations -- and when [he sees] something, he needs to say something. That’s a step forward. Sometimes you need the encouragement from [the staff] that it’s your turn and it’s your time. This is just another one of those statements for Brad, for us, to move forward in the direction we want to go.”

After going from a Rule 5 Draft pick in 2017 to making the Royals rotation in 2018, Keller made his first Opening Day start on March 28, 2019. He pitched seven scoreless innings against the White Sox, allowing just two hits and striking out five.

“Honestly, I feel like I blacked out when that game started. I felt like I was pretty dialed in,” Keller said. “I remember having a good one and starting the season off, 1-0. First one was a whirlwind, and I’m excited to have another one.”

Since that first Opening Day start, Keller has been a workhorse and he fully expects to be one again this year. In three seasons with the Royals, Keller is 21-23 with a 3.50 ERA across 57 starts (78 games) and 360 1/3 innings.

“Any attributes that you want to throw on a guy who you say is No. 1, he’s got all that in his makeup, his stuff, how he competes, his professionalism, how he cares about his teammates,” Matheny said. “I’m looking forward to helping him take that to another level.”

For Keller, starting on Opening Day is about getting the Royals’ rotation off on the right track. And it’s a responsibility he’s happy to put on his shoulders.

“It’s really important to me,” Keller said. “I like to take that burden, get the first game jitters out of the way, just go out there and compete as much as I can. I think our staff as a whole is really impressive to watch. I think for me just to start it and then have those guys fall behind … a really good rotation is when one guy puts up an outing, the next guy tops it, the next guy tops it, and it goes from there. I’m really excited and honored to get the first game.”