PEORIA, Ariz. – On his way to becoming a pitching prospect who has the Seattle Mariners drooling at what they might have, Shawn Kelley once had a different plan.
“I got my college degree in ’06 and was going to start on my master’s degree,” he said. “I was looking for a job, something in politics, campaign marketing.”
Never mind that Kelley’s fastball/slider repertoire, along with an unshakable presence in tough situations, enticed the Mariners when they drafted him in the 13th round in 2007.
Kelley had just won the Ohio Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year award to cap a nice career at Austin Peay, and he figured it was time to get a real job.
“I’d had four great years of baseball in college, but it wasn’t going to be my career,” he said. “I knew I’d always have my memories in the game and I’d loved playing it. My wife was about to start her teaching career, I thought I’d get a job and we’d start a family.”
Then things changed.
Kelley had pitched well in the NCAA regionals, including a head-to-head matchup against Vanderbilt star David Price, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft by Tampa Bay, and people started to notice.
“He went nine innings, I went 10 innings,” Kelley said. “I started getting calls from agents after that.”
The Mariners drafted him that June and sent him to short-season Everett, where he spent a week before they moved him up to low-A Wisconsin. He went 1-1 with a 2.25 earned-run average in nine games for the Timber Rattlers.
Despite the success, Kelley was worn down from seven months of baseball without a break, and he considered getting out of the game again.
“With school and everything, I’d gone about 160 innings,” Kelley said. “They wanted to send me down here to Arizona, not to pitch but just to get the feel of the complex, rest my arm, work out. I almost went home. I was so far away from my family, my wife, and I wasn’t even pitching.”
His wife, Kelsey, convinced him to ride it out and come back in 2008.
“I never decided ‘no’ to baseball, but I weighed it,” Kelley said. “I decided I owed it to myself and my family to try. I thought of all the times my mom and dad had taken me to a game when I was growing up. I thought, ‘Let’s see what I’m capable of.’ I thought about how many people ever got an opportunity like this.”
He cruised through three levels last year – Wisconsin, where he had three saves and a 3.52 ERA; high-A High Desert, where he didn’t allow an earned run in a dozen innings; and Double-A West Tennessee, where he had nine saves and a 2.11 ERA in 29 appearances.
“The biggest thing is that I was 100 percent healthy last year and I adapted to throwing every couple of days and one inning at a time vs. starting, which is what I had always done,” he said. “My arm felt good every time out and I had some success.”
Kelley has 86 strikeouts and just 26 walks in 77 1/3 minor league innings mostly with his fastball and slider, and he’s working on a better changeup at spring training.
“He has great mound presence and command of his pitches,” said Terry Pollreisz, who managed Kelley two seasons ago at Wisconsin. “And he’s got the (mental) makeup. Stuff plus makeup will get you places in this game.”
There’s an open competition for the Mariners’ closer job and, while Kelley has performed that role well in his two minor league seasons, he’s merely hoping to soak up all he can in his first big-league camp. He has allowed five hits and three earned runs in 3 1/3 innings.
“Closing is exciting and I love to do it, but I’m willing to do whatever they want – start, close, middle relief, long relief, setup. I don’t care,” he said. “Whether it’s a one-run game in the ninth inning or the first inning, I try to get outs and let the rest work itself out. Whatever gets me to pitch in Seattle, I’ll do it and do it the best I can.”
Cubs club Mariners
Rich Harden would prefer questions about his health to disappear.
But because of arm problems the past few seasons, the issue won’t go away for the Chicago Cubs right-hander.
“I totally understand, that’s just the way it is,” said Harden after pitching two shutout innings in his first Cactus League appearance during the Cubs’ 8-1 win over the Seattle Mariners. “I’m always going to get those questions, even if I’m healthy four years in a row. I just accept it.”
Harden, who was acquired from Oakland in a midseason trade last year, served one stint on the disabled list in 2008 after three straight injury-plagued seasons with the A’s.
He went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA with Chicago and was unbeaten in his past 10 starts.
The 27-year-old underwent a rigorous off-season workout program designed to build up the strength in his pitching shoulder.
The Cubs, however, have taken a cautious approach with Harden, who is slated to be fourth in Chicago’s rotation behind Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly. He made two appearances in exhibition games and threw two rounds of batting practice before being cleared to pitch in a game.
Harden went two innings against Seattle and allowed two hits with one strikeout.
Ken Griffey Jr., playing in consecutive games for the first time this spring, went hitless in three at-bats for the Mariners. Before the game Griffey chatted with Lou Piniella, his manager for seven seasons when both were in Seattle.
The Mariners continued to have problems with their pitching.
Starter Garrett Olson gave up two runs on three hits, but more troubling were the performances of closer candidates Miguel Batista and Mark Lowe. Batista allowed three runs and three hits in one inning while Lowe gave up four doubles and three runs in two-thirds of an inning.
“It’s just command right now,” Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu said. “Again it’s early. As we get further and further into it, that early statement’s going to be a little bit more of a concern. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt right now.”
Aaron Miles went 2 for 3 for the Cubs, who have 17 runs in their past two games after scoring only nine in their previous four. So Taguchi added a two-run single and Mike Fontenot had an RBI double.
Yuniesky Betancourt doubled and tripled for Seattle, raising his spring average to .444.