Joe Kelly received a standing ovation in his return to St. Louis. He’ll garner similar receptions in Boston with outings like the one he provided in his Red Sox debut.
Kelly, who was acquired from the Cardinals last week along with outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig in exchange for pitcher John Lackey and minor league hurler Corey Littrell, wasn’t dominant Wednesday in his first start with the Red Sox. However, the right-hander overcame a few minor hiccups and showed several encouraging signs while limiting the Cardinals to one run over seven innings as the Red Sox prevailed 2-1 at Busch Stadium.
“Joe was outstanding,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said after the game. “Three quality pitches for strikes. After the first couple of base hits in the first inning, he settles down. He used his full repertoire, particularly his curveball, which I thought was a very good pitch for him. He was seemingly very easy to the bottom of the strike zone and kept the ball on the ground. I thought overall he was very strong.”
Kelly lacked command at times, matching a season-high four walks. As a result, he was forced to navigate through trouble. The 26-year-old rose to the occasion in several instances, though, and St. Louis produced just three hits through the first seven frames.
Kelly’s saving grace was his ability to induce ground balls. Of the 21 outs Kelly recorded, 15 came on the ground, which is critical for a pitcher who typically doesn’t rely on strikeouts — he entered Thursday with 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 38 career starts — or overpowering hitters.
“I just wanted to go out there and pitch as best as I can,” Kelly told reporters in St. Louis. “When we got ahead and fell behind 1-0 or 2-1 (in the count), we put an emphasis on throwing the breaking ball and the changeup. They were both good pitches. I think mixing in pitches like that is going to be going to be huge for me.”
The Cardinals put the leadoff man on in four of Kelly’s seven innings yet were held in check after the first inning. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts made a run-saving stop to cap the second inning and Oscar Taveras was ruled out for running inside the first base line in the fourth inning, but Kelly deserves a ton of credit for executing pitches in key spots.
It was impressive given the circumstances — his debut with his new team against his former team and best friend Shelby Miller — and because his confidence never wavered at any point. Kelly frequently touched 95 mph with his fastball while also flashing superb offspeed offerings that kept Cardinals hitters off balance.
“There were some emotions there,” Kelly said of facing his former club. “After that first inning, I realized it was just pitching again. It’s like pitching in the playoffs. You get really excited, but once you let go of the ball, it’s just pitching again from there.”
If that wasn’t enough, Kelly also pitched through some pain after being struck by Taveras’ comebacker in the fourth inning.
“It definitely hurt,” Kelly said being drilled in the leg. “(The ball) left some seams there and some swelling, but I didn’t want to come out of that game. (The discomfort) was there every time I threw the ball, but I didn’t want to come out of there. It was my first start for the Red Sox and I wanted to go out there and gut it out.”
Kelly certainly gutted it out. He did so in front of some old fans while likely gaining some new ones along the way.