ARLINGTON — Pitching in front of his grandmother for the very first time in the big leagues, and just five years removed from a stint playing in South Korea, Arizona Diamondbacks starter Merrill Kelly produced the outing of his life, helping shut down the Texas Rangers in a 9-1 win in Game 2 of the World Series on Saturday night.
Kelly, 35, threw seven innings, giving up a run on three hits without issuing a walk. He also struck out nine, looking as dominant on his final pitch — a beautiful moving sinker to freeze Rangers catcher Jonah Heim for strike three — as he did on the first pitch of the night.
“I could use every adjective to describe his outing,” teammate Evan Longoria said. “He’s been that for us all year.”
But Kelly was even better Saturday, allowing the Diamondbacks to even the World Series at 1-1. Game 3 is Monday in Phoenix.
“I think there’s a little bit of an evolution, a little bit of maturity that continues to show up with him in every outing,” teammate Zac Gallen said. “He takes things personally upon himself to get better every single start. He’s aware. He’s present. And he’s getting better and better with every start.”
Kelly has indeed pitched well all postseason, allowing exactly three hits in each of his four starts. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he’s the first pitcher in major league history to go at least five innings and allow no more than three hits in four straight outings within a single postseason.
He said he has focused on trying to take things “one pitch at a time” after being unhappy with his two National League Championship Series starts, when he totaled six walks against the Phillies.
“My focus since then was just purely pitch execution, trying to take one pitch at a time — almost the feel of ‘this is the biggest pitch of the game,'” he said. “And then once that pitch is done, have the same mindset going forward as far as the next pitch.”
It worked to near perfection Saturday as Kelly used a five-pitch mix — half were cutters and change-ups — to keep the dangerous Rangers off balance. He became the fifth pitcher in World Series history to go at least seven innings while allowing three or fewer baserunners in a road game.
A hostile crowd and a potent opposing offense didn’t faze him.
“He put the ball where he wanted it,” Rangers designated hitter Mitch Garver said. “He had a game plan, he executed it, and we didn’t do our half.”
Kelly’s lone blemish came against Garver, who homered in the fifth to cut the Diamondbacks’ lead to 2-1, but even that sinker was well placed, moving in on Garver as he got the barrel around on it. It was the last time the Rangers got near home plate.
Diamondbacks pitching strategist Dan Haren was watching from inside the clubhouse.
“He was moving the ball around as good as I’ve ever seen him today,” Haren said. “The amount of times he was hitting corners on both sides, with different pitch types, was just amazing.”
Kelly was particularly good at being in “attack mode” when the Rangers were patient and at hitting corners when they were swinging, according to Haren. He “read” the Rangers seemingly as well as anyone this postseason.
“When Merrill established being in the zone early in the count, I think that really opened things up for him,” Haren said. “He was putting the batters on their heels.”
Kelly was aided by a potent offense. Designated hitter Tommy Pham had a four-hit night, catcher Gabriel Moreno belted his fourth home run of the playoffs and second baseman Ketel Marte extended his postseason hitting streak to a record 18 games. Longoria did his part, driving in a World Series run for the first time in 5,479 days (2008) and laying down a sacrifice bunt, just the second of his career.
“We did it in a way that was very reflective of the group that we are,” Longoria said. “It wasn’t with the long ball. Just consistently putting pressure on the opposing pitchers. You can feel the positivity on our side building when we do get our guys who can run on-base. It amplifies the pressure on the pitcher.
“There’s quite a few people that haven’t watched our brand of baseball all year, but that’s how we win games. I hope that was a good introduction.”
Closer Paul Sewald, watching from the clubhouse and then the bullpen, added: “If you had to face our lineup, you’d just be so annoyed.”
It’s undoubtedly how the Rangers hitters felt about Kelly, who reminisced about his time in Korea, where he worked to improve his game in order to come back to pitch in the big leagues. He spent four seasons overseas after being drafted but never making it to the majors as a farmhand with the Tampa Bay Rays. He said those days stuck with him.
“I definitely had visions and images about me sitting on this podium, for sure,” Kelly said. “The big league games over there, for the time difference, are pretty much in the morning, pretty much right when I’m waking up. So that was kind of my routine. I’d wake up, make my coffee and check on big league baseball.”
Little did he know, he’d eventually make it to the biggest stage in the game. And with family and friends in attendance Saturday, including his grandmother, whom he hadn’t seen since 2011.
“I feel like just life gets in the way,” he said. “This baseball thing takes up a lot of our time.”
Asked how he has been shaped by his experiences, Kelly’s answer might be the reason he pitched so well in Game 2.
“At this point in my career, nothing is going to shock me,” Kelly said. “I think going over to Korea as a 26-year-old is way scarier than pitching in the big leagues or even in the World Series, to be honest with you.”