Tuesday, July 16, 2024

World Series 2023: How Merrill Kelly has turned into Diamondbacks’ unlikely ace during improbable playoff run

The Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the Texas Rangers 9-1 on Saturday night in Game 2 of the World Series. The best-of-seven series is now even at 1-1 heading into a travel day. The World Series will resume with Game 3 on Monday night, that’ll be played at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona.

The Diamondbacks can credit various actors for their Game 2 victory — Ketel Marte and Corbin Carroll each drove in a pair of runs, just as they had in Game 1; Tommy Pham recorded four hits; and so on — but perhaps none more so than starting pitcher Merrill Kelly

Indeed, Kelly delivered in a major way on Saturday, holding the Rangers to one run on three hits and no walks over the course of seven innings. He struck out nine of the 24 batters he faced before giving way to the bullpen. Kelly’s durability was notable for two reasons. Foremost, Game 1 lasted 11 innings and required six members of the D-backs’ bullpen to make appearances (including a combined 50 pitches from closer Paul Sewald and setup man Kevin Ginkel).

Additionally, seven-inning starts in the postseason have become rare. Kelly’s is the seventh such seven-plus-inning start of this October, and the second since the end of the Division Series round. It’s also the first in a World Series since 2019, when Stephen Strasburg threw 8 1/3 innings in Game 6.

Kelly generated a game-high 10 swinging strikes, confounding a Rangers lineup that ranked third in runs scored during the regular season with a combination of changeups, cutters, fastball variants, and sliders. Kelly did not allow a baserunner until the fourth inning, and the only Rangers batter he permitted to reach beyond first was Mitch Garver, who homered in the fifth.

While Zac Gallen has more often than not been described as Arizona’s ace this postseason, Kelly actually had the superior ERA during the regular season. Kelly has also been the D-backs’ stopper throughout this playoff run. Don’t take our word for it, consider the significance of his first four starts:

  • NLDS G1 vs. Dodgers: The Diamondbacks did not clinch a playoff spot until late in the year, requiring that Kelly make a start in their penultimate game. That, plus the D-backs’ sweep of the Brewers in the NL Wild Card Series, meant that Kelly did not pitch until the NLDS. He established the proper tone against the Dodgers, throwing six shutout innings that saw him scatter three hits and two walks. The Diamondbacks won by an 11-2 final.
  • NLCS G2 vs. Phillies: This was Kelly’s worst start of October. He gave up four runs on three hits and three walks over 5 ⅔ innings. The Diamondbacks lost by a 10-0 margin to go down 2-0 in the series.
  • NLCS G6 vs. Phillies: And yet, Kelly rebounded in NLCS Game 6 to force a Game 7. This time around, he put the clamps on Philadelphia’s lineup in front of a hostile crowd. Kelly held the Phillies to one run on three hits and three walks. He struck out eight batters. The Diamondbacks won by a 5-1 score. Obviously they went on to win Game 7 as well.
  • WS G2 vs. Rangers: You already know the result and Kelly’s line, but think about how important it was for the Diamondbacks to avoid a 2-0 series hole. Teams who fall behind in that fashion in best-of-seven series have historically lost more than 84% of series. Even with the series shifting to Arizona, that would’ve been a difficult mess to clean up.

Add Kelly’s four postseason starts together and he’s surrendered six runs on 12 hits and eight walks while punching out 28 batters in 24 innings. That works out to a 2.25 ERA and a 3.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. 

It’s to be seen how the rest of the series plays out. If the Diamondbacks do go on to win it, they’ll owe a great deal of gratitude to Kelly. Who knows, he might end up getting one more start to cement how pivotal he’s been this month.

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