Craig Kimbrel returned & slam the door shut for the win, while the Boston Red Sox opened the door for Joe Kelly to stand at the crossroads of his career.
A long night in Seattle turned into a desert, deprived of any hits or runs. The Red Sox could only manage an earned run on four hits in eight innings off of Mariners starter James Paxton. Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez kept the Mariners thirsty for runs as well, going 6.1 innings and allowed only three hits. Two of them were doubles in the bottom of the seventh, providing Seattle with a taste of run support. Boston’s third baseman Aaron Hill was responsible for the home run that tied the game. It took a leadoff homer by Mookie Betts off of reliever Steve Cishek to send the game into the bottom of the ninth with the Red Sox leading by a run.
That’s all that Kimbrel needed to make his long-awaited return, walking onto the dusty dirt about six inches more than 60 feet from home plate.
Kimbrel stared into catcher Sandy Leon‘s signals, in a showdown with five Mariners wanting to put slugs into his run totals. It took Kimbrel 24 shots to put them away. After a groundout, Kimbrel struck out Kyle Seager; however, his knuckle curve eluded Leon, making it a wild pitch, and allowed Seager to reach first base. A strikeout and a walk later, Kimbrel had two Mariners on base and nasty thoughts on his mind for the next batter, Shawn O’Malley. Another filthy knuckle curve was the fatal pitch for the Mariners, as O’Malley struck out and Kimbrel earned his 18th save of the season in his return.
Despite the victory, not all of the Red Sox were able to ride into the sunset as heroes for the night. Ian Browne of MLB.com reported, “To make room for Kimbrel on the roster, right-hander Joe Kelly was optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket.” Browne added, “With Kimbrel back in action and lefty reliever Fernando Abad acquired in a trade with the Twins on Monday, Kelly was caught in a roster crunch. Clay Buchholz‘s recent success in the bullpen made it easier to send Kelly down.”
Kelly now stands at the crossroads, the purgatory, the ever-daunting limbo that can make or break a player’s career.
At 28 years old, Kelly’s no longer a youth, full of unproven potential. The Anaheim native is only signed through this season at $2.6 million, with arbitration next year and free agency in 2019. Kelly once was a stud for the St. Louis Cardinals, who impressed the Red Sox during the 2013 playoffs. At least, impressed enough to trade John Lackey for him and teammate Allen Craig halfway through 2014. Both men didn’t exactly show brilliance in that first year with the Red Sox, especially Kelly who went 4-2 with a 4.11 ERA in 10 starts. A far cry from the 2.69 ERA he pitched the season before. It got worse in 2015 for Craig, who couldn’t find his bat or any playing time; and Kelly, who had to go on an 8-0 win streak just to get his record to 10-6 and posted a 4.82 ERA.
Now, Craig is spinning his wheels in minor league obscurity, getting no traction on what was once a promising career. Kelly has had the same door opened to him, if he also cannot find his own game.
In nine appearances, six of them starts, Kelly posted a 7.62 ERA and allowed 21 walks to match against his 28 strikeouts. With an opposing batting average of .324, he made the choice an easy one for the Red Sox brass to make.
According to BrooksBaseball.net, Kelly wasn’t fooling anyone this season, as hitters did very well with any pitch in the strike zone, except the top right corner (.146). Even in that spot, the ball was hit very hard with a .244 slugging rate, and most of the plate was slugged between .422 and .590. Even his four-seam fastball, supposedly his best pitch, may be moving at just over 99 mph but it also got drilled for a .285 batting average in the strike zone, including a .500 average after being used 16 times at the bottom middle, just at the knees of a hitter.
Interestingly enough, when Kelly’s at his best is when his velocity isn’t. He was picking up wins with the Cardinals in 2013 with a 95-mph four-seamer, until it spiked in the playoffs at almost 98 mph and he didn’t win a postseason game and his ERA ballooned. The same thing happened the year before, as it jumped about the same rate and equaled no playoff wins. In 2015, Kelly went on his win streak with a 96-mph four-seamer, but got injured just as he spiked the pitch again at just over 97 mph.
As a righty, an injury to his right shoulder didn’t help much, but that was in April. Since then, the Red Sox brought him back in May, demoted him to the bullpen after a horrendous game in June, and sent him to Pawtucket shortly after where he picked up another injury. Kelly did a rehab assignment in Lowell in July before being brought back up to Triple-A and then he was finally called back up to Boston on July 24th as a reliever.
Kelly pitched 3.2 innings of relief and allowed only one earned run on a combined four hits, two walks, and a strikeout in July. However, having an opposing batting average of .286 as a reliever didn’t help his cause, even with a heater of a pitch tapping out at just under 100 mph. Kelly’s average put him in 11th place as a Red Sox reliever, with fellow starter-turned-reliever Clay Buchholz posting .190 as his average. Having so many other full-time relievers with better averages, and Buchholz being already surplus, there was just no room or purpose for making Kelly sit in the bullpen, when he could get playing time to do more work on his game in Triple-A.
When one door shuts, another one opens. Kimbrel shut the door on the Mariners for the save, reclaiming his role as the Red Sox closer. Whether that will continue, after rushing back from knee surgery, is anyone’s guess. One thing is for sure: if Kelly can’t figure out how to consistently get MLB hitters out, or at least limit the damage for six to seven innings, the door that opens for him now will shut behind him and leave him in the heat of minor league misery, with no relief to satisfy his thirst for glory.
** Player profile information also provided by Baseball-Reference.com