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From Korea to World Series, Merrill Kelly's story keeps getting better

Jesse Friedman Avatar
October 29, 2023
Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher Merrill Kelly (29) reacts in the in the seventh inning against the Texas Rangers in game two of the 2023 World Series at Globe Life Field.

ARLINGTON, Texas — As Merrill Kelly took his seat in the Globe Life Field interview room on Friday afternoon, he could not help but glance at the backdrop behind him.

“I just had to take a look,” he said before answering the first question, “just to double-check that it said ‘World Series.'”

Sure enough, there it was. Forming the backdrop of the press conference interview room was an array of 2023 MLB World Series logos.

Some have argued that this year’s design is not particularly exciting. But, for Kelly, the logo might as well have been drawn up in Helvetica Neue, just like the “SNAKES ALIVE” sign that has become a mantra for fans since first appearing in the Chase Field stands during the NLCS. The fact that he is here, in the World Series, is all that matters.

Five years ago, Kelly spent his age-29 season pitching in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), roughly 7,000 miles away from home, hoping for an opportunity to some day return to the states to show what he could do in the majors.

On Saturday, he was the biggest story in baseball. With the Diamondbacks down 1-0 in the World Series, Kelly delivered seven innings of one-run ball with nine strikeouts and no walks on the biggest stage of his life. He became the first starter to go seven-plus innings in a World Series game in the 2020s.

The Diamondbacks went on to win, 9-1, tying the series at a game apiece as it goes back to Arizona for Games 3-5.

A cursory glance at that 9-1 final score might lead one to assume that the Diamondbacks controlled Game 2 throughout. Entering the seventh, however, this was a 2-1 ballgame.

Kelly dominated by throwing six different pitches — changeup, four-seam, sinker, cutter, curveball, slider — none of them more than 25 percent of the time.

“All of his pitches,” Diamondbacks catcher Gabriel Moreno said after the game, “he was able to land all of his pitches today. That was the key.”

Through the first three innings, Kelly retired all nine batters he faced. With two outs in the fourth, the Rangers notched the first hit of the evening, a bloop single at 69.3 mph off the bat from Evan Carter. Kelly then got last night’s hero, Adolis García, to fly out to end the frame.

In the top half of that fourth inning, the Diamondbacks had scored a pair of runs off Rangers lefty Jordan Montgomery. The first came on a solo home run by Gabriel Moreno, his fourth of the postseason. The second came on an RBI single by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. that brought Tommy Pham home from second base. After four, Kelly and the Diamondbacks had a 2-0 lead.

In the fifth, the Rangers got on the board with a solo home run by Mitch Garver to start the frame. That sinker could hardly be considered a mistake. It was at the knees, perhaps a tick below, and an inch or two in off the plate. Garver somehow pulled it over the left-field fence anyway.

Again, Kelly responded well, giving up a hit but nothing else for the rest of the inning.

Then came the sixth, when the Rangers had the top of the lineup due up: Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, Evan Carter. It was the third time through the order and Kelly’s biggest test of the game.

Kelly struck out all three.

In the seventh, he faced García, Garver and Jonah Heim a third time. Again, he retired the side in order, notching a pair of strikeouts along the way.

With his performance, Kelly lowered his postseason ERA to 2.25 in four starts. The Diamondbacks have won three of those four games, and opposing hitters have managed just a .533 OPS against him.

“There’s a little bit of an evolution, a little bit of maturity,” Lovullo said, “that continues to show up with him in every outing.

“You can’t simulate postseason starts. He’s 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. He wants the biggest moment, the biggest stage to show what he’s capable of doing.”

From the moment Kelly set foot in Korea, he made it a point to keep his eyes focused on his ultimate goal: pitching in the majors.

Because of the immense time difference between Korea and the states, major league games were typically on in the morning. Kelly would make his coffee and watch baseball. It was his way of keeping tabs on some of his friends back in the states — and continuing to focus on where he knew he wanted to be.

“Nowhere in my mind when I was in Korea [did I tell] myself that this was it,” Kelly said. “I never accepted the fact that that was my career. I accepted the fact that that was my career at the time until the foreseeable future, but I definitely didn’t accept that that was my career, and that was where it was going to finish.

“It felt literally and figuratively miles away when I was over there. But that was always the mindset. That was always the focal point was getting back to the big leagues.”

“I definitely had visions and images about me sitting on this podium.”

Kelly’s journey to that World Series podium was a tumultuous one.

Kelly was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the eighth round in 2010. Upon reaching Triple-A Durham at the age of 24 in 2013 and logging more innings there in 2014, it eventually became clear that there was not room for him on Tampa’s starting pitcher depth chart.

Given his desire to be a starter, Kelly sought opportunities elswehwere. So, off to Korea it was. In 2015, he became a member of the SK Wyverns.

When all was said and done, he spent a total of four seasons there from 2015-18. In 2018, his ERA was an uninspiring 4.09, but he punched out 9.2 batters per nine innings, the highest mark of any of his seasons in the KBO. When he reached free agency that winter, major league teams began to show interest.

At the time, Kelly had his eyes on two clubs, that seemed most likely to sign him: the Boston Red Sox and the San Diego Padres.

Then, on Dec. 1, 2018 — which just so happened to be his wedding day — Kelly learned not only that the Diamondbacks were interested, but that they were willing to make a multi-year offer that other potential suitors were not.

At the age of 30, Kelly was now married — and he was going to the majors.

“It was a crazy day, I’ll say that,” Kelly said. “The fact that I got to tell my wife on arguably the greatest day of my life not only that I get to say yes and marry her, but the fact that I also knew that I was completing something that I worked my whole life for, definitely made that day a lot more special than it already started out to be.”

On Dec. 4, 2018, the move was made official. Kelly, an Arizona State University alum, was coming back to the desert.

In his first year, Kelly was a solid major league starting pitcher, just as the Diamondbacks hoped he would be. In 32 starts, he went 13-14 with a 4.42 ERA over 183 1/3 innings.

In 2020, Kelly appeared to be making significant strides, logging an impressive 2.59 ERA and 0.99 WHIP through five starts, when he experienced unusual fatigue, among other symptoms, in his throwing arm.

He soon learned that he had a potentially life-threatening blood clot in his right shoulder. Surgery to remove it was successful, but it uncovered another issue: thoracic outlet syndrome, a disorder with a history of significantly hindering pitchers’ careers.

Kelly did not pitch again in 2020 season, but he did return the next year after thoracic outlet surgery. In 27 starts, he was once again a solid major league starter, posting a 4.44 ERA and 1.29 WHIP over 158 innings.

In 2022, though, Kelly reached a whole new level. He was more comfortable and confident as a major league pitcher, and he somehow added both velocity and movement to his changeup.

In 33 starts, he went 13-8 with a 3.37 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over 200 1/3 innings. In 2022, he was better in the majors than he ever had been over a full season overseas.

In 2023, Kelly’s walk rate ticked up to a career-high 9.6 percent, the highest mark of his major league career. But he effectively compensated for that by inducing more whiffs, thanks in large part to the addition of a new slider that was his own idea.

This year in the regular season, Kelly went 12-8 with a 3.29 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and a career-high 25.9 percent strikeout rate. In the playoffs, he has been even better.

“He’s a big part of the reason why we’re even here,” Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker said following Saturday’s game. “He deserves more credit than he gets. He’s a baller. Game on the line, back up against the wall, you want that guy going to battle for you.”

“He’s been that for us all year,” third baseman Evan Longoria added. “I’m not surprised.”

By all indications, Kelly was not surprised either. The “oh s—” moment came before the game, not after, he said. Before throwing his first pitch, he tried to take it all in as best he could; the fact that he was about to pitch in Game 2 of the World Series.

After the game, he exhibited the same kind of quiet confidence that has led him from middling KBO starter to, on Saturday night, the top of the baseball universe. His performance was the latest — and best — chapter yet in one of the better stories in baseball.

Follow Jesse Friedman on X (formerly Twitter)

Top photo: Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

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