Can Merrill Kelly become the Arizona Diamondbacks’ ‘stopper?’

PHOENIX – It doesn’t take long for a visitor to understand personal accolades or anointment mean nothing to Merrill Kelly. In fact, the right-hander for the Arizona Diamondbacks would rather slide into the background and quietly execute his job.

In the way the season began for the Diamondbacks, that may be quite difficult. Kelly is off to a fast start and his efforts, over the first week-plus of the season, may portend an unexpected future. With a few starters in the rotation performing at an acceptable level, Kelly emerges as a potential “stopper” and one of a high profile. Given the Diamondbacks’ struggles at the plate, the development of a starter who can gain a critical victory appears all that more acute.

Over his initial two starts of the season, Kelly, a 33-year-old out of Desert Mountain High School in the Phoenix area, has a 0.00 ERA in 9.1innings of work. This is coming off a marginal 23-27 record with Arizona over the past three seasons.

“There is a mentality involved,” Kelly said after his latest start against Houston April 13 in Chase Field. “It’s a situation on getting my feet on the ground. This is the fourth year coming in and there is a lot of comfortability. Not only knowing the guys in this clubhouse but it’s about knowing the league, as well. It’s just having confidence in myself and know that I can get guys in this league out.”

The journey for Kelly appeared to circumvent Chase Field. Out of the Phoenix metro area, he was an eight-round pick for the Tampa Rays in 2010 and spent five seasons in the Rays organization. After four seasons with the SK Wyverms in the KBO League in South Korea, Kelly landed back in the desert.

Coming out of baseball in southeast Asia, Kelly signed a two-deal with Arizona (a reported $5.5 million) plus options for 2021 and 2022. Just before the current season began, he signed for a two-year deal for $18 million plus an option for the 2025 season.

“His timing and balance points are just right,” said manager Torey Lovullo. “He is staying in behind the baseball and getting full extension. The fastball (velocity) is a tick or two above. He’s throwing an 88-90 mile per hour change-up and with movement and depth. Plus, he’s still spinning the breaking ball. I think it’s mostly timing and hard work that put him in this situation.”

The improved mechanics have produced results on the mound and on the scoresheet. For nearly 10 innings in 2022, Kelly allowed seven hits, walked four, and struck out nine batters. His 0.00 is tied with the Mets’ Tylor Megill for the best ERA among the National League starters.

“I’ve tried to be a little more fluid with the delivery rather than turns I did last year,” he said. “There was a lot of stop and go that gives more room for error throughout the developer. I cut down and just try and be a little more efficient.”

If the Diamondbacks are to recover from a 3-6 start, hitters will have to complement Kelly’s start. Coming into the four-game series at Washington beginning Monday night, Arizona is hitting .152 (42-for-226) as a team, and that’s last in the National League. Their 20 RBIs for the first nine games are also the lowest in the NL and far behind the 29 RBIs by the Milwaukee Brewers.

Among position players, Seth Beer is off to a creditable start with a .382 batting average, and with Ketal Marte (.212) are the only regulars in Lovullo’s lineup hitting above .200.

“We’re struggling and the next part is to deliver the knock-out blow,” promised Lovullo. “That’s coming. It will happen at some point.”

On the nation’s capital … Beginning Monday night, the Diamondbacks take on the Nationals. In the opener, lefty Madison Bumgarner (0-0. 2.25 ERA) opposes right-hander Josiah Gray (1-1, 4.00). On Tuesday night, look for Merrill Kelly (0.0, 0.00) to oppose right-hander Joan Adon (0-0, 10.00). On Wednesday night, it’s righthander Zack Davies (0-1, 5.780 taking on righty Erick Fedde (1-0, 3.60). In the series finale Thursday afternoon, look for righty Zac Gallen (0-0, 0.00) to face lefty Josh Rogers (1-1, 3.72). Then, it’s back to Chase Field for a six-game homestand that features three with the Mets and three with the Dodgers.

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