Korean Series experience leads to major league fall baseball victory. Merrill Kelly 캡틴토토(35, Arizona Diamondbacks), the “reverse export myth” who is the most successful foreign player in the major leagues, won his fall baseball debut against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In an interview, he talked about his experience winning the Korean Series and expressed pride in his KBO roots.
Kelly started Game 1 of the National League Division Series (NLDS) against the Dodgers in the 2023 Major League Baseball postseason on Aug. 8 and pitched 6 1/3 innings of three-hit ball with two walks and five strikeouts to lead Arizona to an 11-2 victory. It was a stark contrast to Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw, who gave up six runs on six hits (one homer) and one walk in ⅓ innings.
Kelly made his fall ball debut look easy, as the Arizona offense pounded Kershaw for six runs in the first inning. He worked out of runners on second and third and first and second in the second without allowing a run, then retired the side in order in the fourth through sixth. Throwing 89 pitches through the seventh inning, Kelly topped out at 95.5 mph (153.7 km/h) and averaged 94 mph (151.3 km/h) with a mix of four-seam fastballs (31), cutter (30), changeup (15), curve (6), sinker (5), and slider (2).
Meanwhile, Kelly has been particularly weak against his fellow National League West division team, the Dodgers. In 16 career starts against the Dodgers since his debut in 2019, Kelly has struggled with a 5.49 ERA in 11 losses without a win. This year, he went 2-2 with a 3.98 ERA in four games, but he overcame his nemesis by earning his first win against the Dodgers in the postseason.
In his official postgame interview, Kelly said, “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me that I hadn’t beaten the Dodgers before. But I didn’t think about it at all. “I’ve never been in the playoffs in the big leagues, but I’ve been in the playoffs in Korea and Triple-A before. Obviously, it’s not the same level, but I’ve seen enough to know that anything can happen in the playoffs. My mindset was to try to change my fate.”
It was Kelly’s first major league fall ball appearance. After making his debut in 2019, Arizona didn’t play fall ball for four years until last year. However, Kelly did experience fall baseball while playing for the SK Wyverns (now the SSG Landers) in the KBO from 2015-2018. In three postseasons from 2015-2017-2018, he went 1-1 with a 5.92 ERA in six games, but in the 2018 Korean Series, he went 1-1 with a 2.19 ERA in two games and helped the team win the title.
“Do you think this is the most important game of your career so far?” he was asked during the official interview. “Probably,” Kelly said, “but obviously the Korean Series is a big one, and we won the championship. I’d put it right up there with winning in Korea,” he said, not forgetting the value of winning the Korean Series.
“I’m a pretty level-headed, laid-back person. I try not to pay too much attention to things that I can’t control. I don’t try to make things bigger than they are,” he said, adding, “I want to give credit to our guys for jumping on Kershaw in the first inning and scoring six runs, which made it a little easier for me to be aggressive.”
Kelly’s father was also at Dodger Stadium to watch the game. Looking toward the family section as she came off the mound in the seventh inning, Kelly patted her chest and said, “My dad actually missed his flight this morning. I was a little upset about that, but I thought it might be a good distraction for me. I’m glad I tried to stay as calm as possible. I’m grateful to my dad for not going to the airport early,” she said later. Luckily, Kelly’s father was able to find a new flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles and made it to the stadium on time. It was one of the best days of his life, as he became a proud son in front of his father.
Meanwhile, Kelly spent four years with SK in the KBO from 2015-2018, going 48-32 with a 3.86 ERA and 642 strikeouts in 119 games (729⅔ innings). After spending time in the minors in the U.S., he stepped up in Korea and signed a 2+2 year, $14.5 million contract with Arizona. He made his major league debut at age 31, but in five years, he’s gone 48-43 with a 3.80 ERA and 681 strikeouts in 127 games (750⅔ innings) as a starter.
After signing an extension with Arizona for 2+1 years and $18 million guaranteed before last season, he has been consistent with double-digit wins for two straight years. In 30 games (177⅔ innings) this season, he posted a career-high 12-8 record with a 3.29 ERA and 187 strikeouts. He has been at the center of the Arizona surge, winning his fall ball debut.