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Merrill Kelly’s journey through October rolls on with World Series Game 2 win

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly (29) walks to the dugout after the fourth inning in Game 2 of the World Series against the Texas Rangers, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Arlington.  (Tribune News Service)
By Chelsea Janes Washington Post

ARLINGTON, Texas – After the Arizona Diamondbacks wrapped up their 9-1 win in Game 2 of the World Series on Saturday night, a reporter suggested to Merrill Kelly that given the stakes and the way he shut down the Texas Rangers for seven dominant innings, he might have just pitched the greatest game of his career.

Kelly raised his eyebrows, pushed his chin up into a pensive frown, as if he were quickly considering whether he would argue, then quickly decided that he could not. It seemed he had not given much thought to the gravity of what he had just done, nor been nearly as impressed that he had done it as those who did not follow his team all season.

“I’m confident that I can get people out,” Kelly said matter-of-factly, wholly unsurprised by the fact that he had allowed one run in seven innings and struck out nine against a Rangers offense that is rarely quieted so completely. “I think I’ve shown myself enough over the last five years that if I execute pitches, I can get good hitters out. The pinch-me moment came before the game, just sitting there, thinking through what I was about to do – where I am and the stage I’m on.”

Kelly is, in that way, emblematic of his Diamondbacks, who bounced back from a stunning extra-inning defeat in Game 1 by outlasting Rangers starter Jordan Montgomery through six innings, then piling on runs against the Rangers’ bullpen late. They are surprised to be here, soaking it up, so much so that manager Torey Lovullo emerged from his office with his phone to take a picture of all the media lined up to head into his team’s clubhouse after Saturday night’s game. But they are not surprised to win here, just as they were not surprised to climb back from a two-games-to-none deficit in the National League Championship Series, or to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers once they earned the chance to play them.

“This was a big win. You’re talking about a team that got beat last night after being two outs away from a win. There’s a concern of momentum in the other direction,” Lovullo said. “I think the first couple of innings (Kelly) said, ‘I got you guys until you got your feet on the ground.’ And we did. We won this game today because of Merrill.”

The right-hander’s evening began with a strikeout of Marcus Semien, a good start by all the usual measures, but a telling one in another way: Kelly, who relies on a mix of five different pitches, each which he uses at least 10 percent of the time, used five different pitches to strike out Semien – and seemingly landed all of them right where he wanted.

“He was able to land all of his pitches today,” catcher Gabriel Moreno said through team interpreter Alex Arpiza. “I think that was the key part.”

Kelly mixed and matched his way through the Rangers’ lineup so effectively that he did not even need to pitch around Game 1 heroes Corey Seager and Adolis García. He held the Rangers’ lineup hitless one time through. He allowed one run, a solo homer to Mitch Garver, the second time through. By that time, Moreno’s solo homer and an RBI double by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had staked the Diamondbacks to a one-run lead after five innings – and Kelly had only needed 59 pitches to get them there.

So as the bottom of the sixth inning began, Lovullo faced the kind of decision that can define a postseason legacy: He could pull his right-hander, who has risen to almost every challenge this month and was visibly frustrated when Lovullo pulled him from his previous NLCS start. Or he could let him pitch to the Rangers’ best hitters a third time, knowing that Kelly needn’t collapse but merely lapse on one pitch. Many managers, especially those in their first postseason, would operate with the urgency that is in fashion these days, turning the game over to the bullpen. But Lovullo is not, in many ways, like other managers. And Kelly is not, in many ways, like most starting pitchers.

Lovullo kept him in, leaving a precious lead in what might as well have been a must-win game in the hands of a 35-year-old who had never pitched on this stage. Kelly proceeded to strike out three of the hottest hitters on the planet, including Seager and García, while marching through the heart of the Rangers’ lineup one more time. He pitched so well in the later innings that by the time he needed only 89 pitches to get through seven, though Lovullo felt Kelly had done enough.

“I just felt like he had done his job. It was seven up/downs. It was a big ask. There was a ton of emotion that goes into every World Series game,” Lovullo said. “I looked him up and down. I looked him over, and I felt like he was getting a little fatigued.”

Kelly didn’t fight him much this time. He had thrown seven spectacular innings in which he allowed one run on three hits and struck out nine against a prolific Rangers lineup. The Diamondbacks piled on in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, which made it seem as if Kelly had not been pitching under much duress. But until his offense added on after he departed, their lead Saturday was never big enough to eliminate the possibility that the Rangers, who tied for the third-most homers (233) in baseball during the regular season, could tie it with one swing. Kelly did not let them, and he never looked particularly worried that he might.

“You can’t simulate postseason starts. But (Kelly) has really stepped on it and gotten after it and gotten even better, which is not surprising to me because that’s who he is at his core,” Lovullo said. “He wants the biggest moment, the biggest stage, to show what he’s capable of doing.”

Much like his team, the process of getting to this stage was much harder for Kelly than performing on it. He started his career at junior college before transferring to Arizona State. He made it to Class AAA with the Tampa Bay Rays before going to Korea for four years to prove himself, then signing his first big league deal at age 30 with an organization he had never known in Arizona.

“I would like to think that part of it is, at this point in my career, nothing is going to shock me,” Kelly said. “I think going over to Korea as a 26-year-old is way scarier than pitching in the big leagues, or even in the World Series, to be honest with you.”

In fact, for all the bright lights and all the cameras, or the TV network drones spinning over the field between innings, the audience Kelly was most worried about Saturday was his grandmother. He hasn’t seen her for years, he said, but she made the trip. So did his brother, whose birthday is next week and texted Merrill that he had never given him a better birthday gift.

Kelly couldn’t have given his team a better gift, either. Arizona’s bullpen had handled a lot of innings and a lot of disappointment just 24 hours earlier. Until Kelly left the game, the Diamondbacks’ lineup hadn’t exactly erupted against Montgomery, either. Ultimately, Tommy Pham finished with four hits. Ketel Marte delivered a two-run single in the eighth that extended his postseason hitting streak to 18 games, the longest in postseason history. Corbin Carroll had two hits. Arizona as a whole accumulated 16, the most in a World Series game since 2014.

But it was Kelly who calmly and matter-of-factly brought the Diamondbacks back into the World Series with what was, arguably, the game of his life. No one was less surprised than he was.

“I just turned 35, and I’m definitely closer to the end of my career than I am the beginning,” Kelly said. “I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as I can and not make anything bigger than it needs to be.”