Can Merrill Kelly help propel the Arizona Diamondbacks to a championship?

PHOENIX – While this may not be the story author Charles Dickens envisioned, he once wrote “this is the best of times, this is worst of times.” In a developing scenario, this could be the type of season endured by the titular heads of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ starting rotation.

For most of the season and through the All-Star game, right-hander Zack Gallen held this distinction. It was Gallen who set a franchise record for most consecutive scoreless innings in 2022 and a well-deserved reputation that followed. His first-half numbers of an 11-3 record and 3.04 ERA earned the starting nod for the National League in the All-Star game.

By the time the calendar rolled into the critical stretch drive, Gallen was not as effective. He finished the season with a 2-2 record and two no-decisions over his final six starts. Here, he allowed six home runs, and posted a 5.27 ERA over those final six starts.

If Gallen began to slip, then Merrill Kelly commenced his ascendancy.

A consistent season and strong stretch drive now have surfaced Kelly as the number one among Arizona starters. Kelly’s stellar effort in game two of the World Series may have solidified his stature in overtaking Gallen.

Against the Rangers, he went seven innings, allowed only a home run to Mitch Garver, raised his post-season mark to 3-1, and lowered his ERA to 2.25.

“(Kelly) takes things personally upon himself to get better every single start,” said Arizona Torey Lovullo after game two of the World Series. “He’s really stepped on it, gotten after it, and gotten after even better. That’s not surprising to me because of who is at his core. He wants the biggest moment, the biggest stage to show what he is capable of doing.”

One of the core elements of the Diamondbacks’ success in this post-season is the ability of the pitching staff to elevate their game. That’s especially true of the back end of the bullpen. To that end, closer Paul Sewald failed his teammates in game one. He walked Loedy Taveras, the Rangers ninth hitter, and then surrendered a two-run homer to Corey Seager. Despite these recent maladies, the veteran right-hander has been effective. Right-hander Kevin Ginkel continues his strong October and as the Diamondbacks set-up reliever, he posted a 0.00 ERA over nine post-season appearances through game two of the World Series.

Kelly, then, took this argument to an obvious level.

“I just think it’s the execution,” he said after game two of the World Series. “If you look at the Philly game, at least Game Two, I think there’s where I got beat and didn’t execute well enough. So, my focus since then, and even (in game two) was just purely pitch execution and trying to take one pitch at a time. And then once this is the biggest pitch of the game, then have the same mindset going forward with the next pitch.”

Just before the start of the National League Championship Series against Philadelphia, Sewald was asked how Arizona pitchers would keep Philly bombers from lighting up the sky. His response was the same one-word explanation, “execution.”

Kelly then took command. Realizing the sense of urgency and the hour of need, the 35-year-old right-hander took control.

“What Merrill did was huge for us,” Lovullo said. “This was a big win (in game two). You’re talking about a team (losing 6-5 on Adolis Garcia’s walk-off homer in the bottom of the 11th inning) after being two outs away from a win. There’s a concern about momentum in the other direction. I think in the first couple of innings, he said, ‘I’ll carry you guys until you get your feet on the ground.’ And, we did. We won (Game two) because of Merrill.”

In rising to the top of the Arizona rotation, Kelly simply put up better numbers. In his final six starts of the season, he, like Gallen, went 2-2 and two no-decisions, but his ERA was stronger. In those appearances, Kelly allowed a 3.29 ERA (Gallen posted 5.27 ERA in that 6-game span) and Kelly emerged into the post-season as the stronger of the two notable right-handers.

Next … the series, tied at 1-1, now moves to Chase Field. In game three, rookie righty Brandon Pfaadt (0-0, 2.70 ERA in five post-season starts) gets the Arizona start. In those starts, he allowed runs in only two of the five starts. He is opposed by 39-year-old veteran Max Scherzer (4-2 in eight games during the regular season). Scherzer was expected to miss the post-season with a teras major strain to a muscle that connects with the shoulder blade. For his career, Scherzer is 7-8 with a 3.86 ERA in 24 post-season starts. Originally drafted by the Diamondbacks (first round in 2006), Scherzer went 9-15 (3.86 ERA) in 37 starts during the 2008 and 2009 seasons for Arizona. Game time is 8:03 p.m. Eastern time and televised nationally on FOX.

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