Now, he’s about to become more than a KBO export myth, he’s a World Series championship hero. Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Merrill Kelly, 35, is in the midst of the biggest moment of his baseball career.
On Monday (Sept. 29), Kelly took the mound against the Texas Rangers in Game 2 of the 2023 Major League Baseball World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, and pitched seven innings of three-hit ball to lead Arizona to a 9-1 victory.
Kelly’s performance that day was nothing short of fantastic. She didn’t allow a single run and struck out nine. His pitch count was ideal at 89, with 63 of those 89 being strikes.
Kelly got off to a good start in the first inning, striking out leadoff hitter Marcus Semien on an outside slider. The slider was clocked at 87 mph (140 km/h). He got Corey Seager to fly out to shortstop on two pitches and then threw a 93 mph (150 km/h) cutter to Evan Carter to get him out of the batter’s box. It was a strikeout.
The next batter Kelly faced to start the second inning was Adolis Garcia, who had hit a game-tying home run in Game 1 of the World Series the previous day (Aug. 28). Kelly was unfazed and got Garcia to ground out to third base. He then got Mitch Garber to fly out to third and Jonah Heim to fly out to center. After striking out leadoff hitter Nathaniel Lowe on a 93-mph cutter in the bottom of the third, Kelly got Josh Young to ground out to shortstop and then struck out Leodis Taveras on a swinging strike. The pitch that got Taveras was a 90-mph (145-kilometer) changeup.
After Arizona took a 2-0 lead in the top of the fourth inning, Kelly got even more excited. After retiring Semien and Seager on back-to-back infield flies, Kelly gave up Carter’s first hit of the game on a single up the middle, but got Garcia to fly out to right field to end the inning.
Kelly didn’t falter in the bottom of the fifth, when a 93-mph sinker to leadoff hitter Garber led to a solo home run to left field. He got Heim to ground out to first base and Lowe to fly out to left field. Young gave up an infield single to shortstop, but was untroubled. Kelly got Taveras to fly out to center field for the final out.
Kelly’s highlight of the night came in the bottom of the sixth inning. He put on a KKK show against Texas’ top three hitters. After striking out Semien with a 93 mph four-seam fastball, Seager with a 92 mph cutter, and Carter with an 85 mph curveball, Kelly was able to relax in the top of the seventh after Arizona added two runs in the top of the seventh, and he was able to keep Texas’ hopes of a comeback alive with another perfect outing, striking out Garcia and Heim. Arizona added three more runs in the top of the eighth to take a 7-1 lead, and there was no reason to stick with Kelly.
Merrill Kelly of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitches a complete game in Game 2 of the World Series.
Arizona Diamondbacks’ Merrill Kelly pitches a gem in Game 2 of the World Series.
No pitcher in the World Series has ever pitched seven innings of one-run ball with no walks and at least nine strikeouts. Kelly became just the fifth pitcher in history to do so. Don Newcomb in 1949 (World Series Game 1), Roger Clemens in 2000 (World Series Game 2), Cliff Lee in 2009 (World Series Game 1), and Clayton Kershaw in 2017 (World Series Game 1).
After suffering a shocking late-game loss the day before, Arizona was able to bounce back with Kelly’s performance. Kelly is now 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA in the postseason this year. It’s hard to believe that he hadn’t pitched a single game in the major league postseason before.
After the game, veteran Arizona third baseman Evan Longoria said, “That was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, he executed everything he wanted to,” adding, “When you watch him pitch, it’s never overpowering. It’s not like he’s throwing 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour). But he can throw four or more pitches everywhere,” he said of Kelly’s pitching.
“I don’t think anybody ever thought I’d be sitting here and pitching in the World Series,” he said of performing in a big game like the World Series. “To be honest, I was more scared of going to Korea at 26 than I was of pitching in the major leagues, or even pitching in the World Series,” he recalled of his decision to travel to Korea.
It was the most important decision of his baseball career. An unknown minor leaguer before coming to Korea, Kelly decided to join the SK Wyverns in 2015 and played in the KBO until 2018, compiling a 48-32 record with a 3.86 ERA and becoming the longest-serving foreign player in the league. His progress kept Major League Baseball scouts busy, and Arizona was able to land him a contract. “Obviously, the choice to go to Korea, the culture, and the separation from my family was the biggest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my baseball career,” Kelly recalls.
With so many ups and downs in his baseball career, it’s no wonder he’s able to showcase his pitching on the big stage of the World Series. “Nothing is going to surprise me at this point,” Kelly said. I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as I can,” he said, vowing to continue pitching without pressure on the World Series stage.
With a 1-1 record on the road, Arizona will now return home to Chase Field on July 31. It will be interesting to see if the A’s can pull off another upset after reaching the World Series for the first time in 22 years in 2001, when Byung-hyun Kim was the closer.