LOS ANGELES — Joe Kelly had three different months this baseball season when he recorded an ERA over 8. Joe Kelly blew a potential Opening Day victory when his three walks and an untimely double in the eighth wasted Chris Sale’s gem. In short, Joe Kelly earned well-deserved inclusion in the most doubted segment of the Red Sox roster heading into this postseason, on a bullpen staff that left even the most devoted believers chewing their fingernails to the nub.
Except Joe Kelly also had three different months of this baseball season when he recorded an ERA under 2, including a big fat zero over the last 30 days. Joe Kelly bounced back from that Opening Day disaster to record his career first save in Boston’s very next game. And most of all, Joe Kelly can throw a baseball in excess of 100 miles per hour.
In short, there was never any doubt of Kelly’s inclusion on the Red Sox playoff roster.
Boy did he ever deliver. With a postseason run among as dominant a middle inning reliever can have, Kelly helped the Sox clinch their ninth World Series title in franchise history and fourth in the last 14 years. He threw yet another perfect inning Sunday. In striking out the side in the eighth inning, Kelly helped the Sox clinch their 5-1 victory and overall 4-1 series win. But in appearing in all five Series games, Kelly was a huge contributor to the title, finishing with six innings and giving up four hits, no runs and no walks while striking out 10. From a rocky start to a championship finish, Kelly was an integral part of this run.
“He was amazing the first part of the season, and he struggled,” manager Alex Cora said. “His usage changed, he started relying a lot on his fastball. He wasn’t able to land his breaking ball early in the count. And he got away from his changeup, which is probably his second-best pitch. But he throws 100, which at the end of September when we start talking about rosters and all that, it’s hard to leave a 100 out of the 25-man roster in October. He’s pitched in the World Series. He has experience. And he started throwing the ball well towards the end. Made some adjustments mechanically and you see the results, and he’s been amazing. He’s been great.”
Still, there was no way to predict just how good he would be this postseason, no way to know that he might emerge as one of those amazing October stories when the performance gets better as the stakes get higher. The 30-year-old righthander has surrendered but one earned run in 10⅓ innings, the anchor in a pen that has relied on him, Ryan Brasier, and Matt Barnes along with converted spot-use starters Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, David Price, and Sale.
Kelly’s emergence as the most dominant bridge to closer Craig Kimbrel has been one of the bigger surprises of this heady postseason run, a trend that is sure to land the soon-to-be free agent some big bucks when this Series ends. Whether that comes from the Red Sox or perhaps a West Coast team appealing to Kelly’s California roots, what he has done here this year for Boston will not be forgotten.
Take the key strikeout he got in the Sox’ dramatic comeback win in Game 4, when the Dodgers had given all of their 4-0 lead back, were stuck in a 4-4 tie in the eighth, and Kelly faced Yasmani Grandal with two outs and runners on first and third. One 98.2-m.p.h. fastball later, the Sox were out of the jam. And one half-inning later, Rafael Devers’s pinch-hit RBI gave the Sox the lead. They would not give it back.
A day after the Red Sox won Game 2 at Fenway Park and the Sox bullpen retired the Dodgers’ final 16 batters, Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts was asked about Boston’s pen. No surprise who he singled out.
“I would say that looking back at the game and the video, just Joe Kelly in particular was making really good pitches,” Roberts said. “And then you’ve got two innings of a pen of Kimbrel and two innings of Eovaldi. So you’ve got stuff. You’ve got being down. You’ve got unfamiliarity. So there’s a lot of things that lead into why we aren’t getting hits against those guys.”
Remember, the bullpen was supposed to be the Red Sox Achilles’ heel this postseason. Instead, it’s been like Samson’s hair.
“You know, when the starters do their job and everybody does their job, and we get to turn the ball over to the big boys, every single one of those guys throw a hundred miles an hour, and that’s a great feeling for any type of a ball club,” Saturday hero Steve Pearce said. “And especially when they’re on their game in this type of atmosphere, it’s very difficult for opposing hitters to hit.”
Kelly has been the most difficult to touch, writing himself quite an ending to an up-and-down year. From the day he blew that game to open the year, the Red Sox have barely looked back, winning their next nine, losing one, and winning another eight in a row. Kelly, who was integral to setting that early tone of dominance, recalled how Cora helped him settle in after the tough start.
“I ended up blowing that game, giving up four earned and getting one out. So, easily from there, Opening Day, everyone’s prepared for this mentally, physically. It would have been real easy for Alex to just toss me aside and be like, hey, next man up,” Kelly said. “But Craig pitched the next day, threw too many pitches. They didn’t want him going back to back or throw two days in a row.
“And I had 999 ERA, and Alex came to me right before the game, hey, you’re going to close today if there’s a save. And two days before, the day before, blew the biggest game obviously, it was Opening Day. And it wasn’t even close . . . but he came up to me in the locker room and looked me in the eye and said, hey, you’re going to get a save.
“So that was cool because the game ended up playing out that way, I got my first career save. And just when a manager like that or anybody as a parent, if you can instill confidence in someone even though they messed up, give them another chance, I think it only builds their psyche, but it shows they’re going to go down there, fight for you in the trenches when you’re not doing good, and come back and be by your side.
“Very loyal guy.”
Consider it paid back.