Keller rewards skipper's trust with escape act

September 17th, 2022

NEW YORK -- Derek Shelton does not pull the managerial mound visit card often. When Shelton walks out to the infield’s miniature mountain in the middle of an inning, he typically intends to make a change, to end one pitcher’s night and to begin another’s. On Friday evening, Mitch Keller suspected something different.

Keller was nearing the end of his line. He recorded two outs in the sixth but had just plunked a batter to load the bases. With one swing, the game could spiral. So, when Shelton walked towards Keller at this game’s critical juncture, everyone at Citi Field, Keller included, would have been valid in assuming Keller’s evening was over. Except, it wasn’t.

“Usually, when you see the manager it's not a good thing,” Keller said after the Pirates’ 4-3 loss to the Mets. “He's usually coming to take you out, but he didn't point to the bullpen, so I knew we were going to have a talk.”

Shelton wanted to check in on Keller’s status -- he was at 81 pitches -- but he also wanted to know Keller’s plan of attack against Luis Guillorme. Keller outlined his blueprint with conviction, breaking down to Shelton how he wanted to attack the Mets’ utility man. Shelton liked what he heard, and he returned to the dugout. Keller remained on the mound. It was potentially the first time Shelton had pulled this move as a manager. It paid off.

On Keller’s third pitch to Guillorme, he induced an inning-ending, drama-free weak lineout to shortstop. Keller completed the inning and, by extension, the night, on his own terms and nailed down his fourth consecutive quality start. The final line: six innings, six strikeouts and three runs allowed on five hits and two walks, a pitching line he achieved against a team with World Series aspirations. Shelton trusted his starter, and that trust was rewarded.

“That's what I wanted to hear,” Shelton said. “I wanted to hear what he was going to do, how he was going to do it. I think at these times we talk about growth moments, and that was a growth moment. Going in and executing pitches, he did a heck of a job."

“It's a great feeling to know that he trusts me in a really big situation like that,” Keller said. “I mean, a base hit and the game gets out of hand there. Just the trust that he had in me, it's special. It's really cool.”

In that moment, with a Friday night crowd in Queens looking for a reason to erupt, Keller possessed the confidence, the belief, to convince his manager to keep him in the ballgame. The playoff-like atmosphere and playoff-caliber opponent didn’t deter Keller at all. The moment was one of several on the night in which he exhibited his maturation as a pitcher. But in the past, Keller admitted he may have opted for a different course of action. 

“I think I would have been maybe looking for somebody to take me out of that inning,” Keller said. “But yeah, definitely not anymore. I feel like I have that confidence to stay in there and I can get anybody out. I don't really care who it is.”

That confidence derives from how well Keller has pitched over the last couple of months. Since rejoining the rotation on May 31, Keller boasts a 3.28 ERA across 104 1/3 innings, by far the best stretch of success that the right-hander has had in his Major League career. Those results over an extended period of time played no small part in Shelton’s decision making.

"I think he gets [runway] because of how well he's pitched over the last three months,” Shelton said. “When you get to execute pitches and you know your plan, yeah, you have the ability to have a conversation and he did. And again, I think he did an outstanding job."