Joe Kelly Strengthens Case To Keep Spot In Boston Red Sox’s Rotation

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BOSTON — Joe Kelly’s final audition went well.

The Red Sox’s starting rotation soon will return to being a five-man unit, with Kelly and Steven Wright battling for the fifth and final spot. Kelly made a strong case Saturday to remain in the rotation, as he spun six solid innings in Boston’s 4-2 win over the Oakland Athletics at Fenway Park.

“He had three pitches for strikes, but more importantly, the number of quality fastballs in the bottom of the strike zone once again proved successful,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said.

It’s been an uninspiring season for Kelly, who boldly declared back in January he’d win the American League Cy Young award. He entered Saturday with only one win and a 5.83 ERA in 10 starts, making it fair to question whether the Red Sox should shift him to the bullpen if he again faltered. Wright, after all, has been effective, if not flashy, in four starts since joining the rotation with Justin Masterson on the 15-day disabled list.

But Kelly offered a reminder Saturday as to why the Red Sox have remained hopeful about the 26-year-old. He allowed one run on four hits over six steady innings. The most significant hiccup he endured came in the third inning, when Billy Burns tripled home Eric Sogard to cut Boston’s lead to 2-1. Kelly responded to the adversity by retiring Ben Zobrist via a groundout and striking out Stephen Vogt to leave the potential tying run standing 90 feet away.

Kelly ran into trouble in the fourth inning after the Red Sox opened a 4-1 lead. He surrendered a double to Josh Reddick and walked Marcus Semien. But, much like he did in the third inning, Kelly stepped up when it mattered most and struck out Max Muncy before retiring Mark Canha on a line drive to right field.

“Whether it’s his last couple of starts or even going back to when he first arrived here last year, Joe’s got an ability to rise to an occasion inside of a game,” Farrell said. “Whether it’s the ability to reach back and get a little extra velocity, whether it’s to make a key pitch as he’s done the last two starts out in particular with men in scoring position, he’s got a way about him to maybe keep a moment under control and still execute. He’s shown us that repeatedly.”

It wasn’t an awe-inspiring performance by Kelly. The Red Sox still could opt to go with Wright over Kelly and few would consider it an act of blasphemy. There are times when it looks like Kelly is best-suited for a relief role, so one could argue him staying in the rotation really only delays the inevitable.

That said, Kelly has a higher ceiling than Wright. If he can establish some sort of consistency, the Red Sox will benefit greatly from having his electric arm in the rotation. And for as much flak as Kelly has taken in recent weeks, he’s pitched well of late with the exception of his seven-run implosion May 25 in Minnesota. Kelly has allowed two earned runs or fewer in four of his last five starts, and he owns a 1.85 ERA (five earned runs over 24 1/3 innings) in those four outings.

Will Kelly’s improvement be enough for him to remain in the Red Sox’s rotation alongside Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Eduardo Rodriguez? Or will Boston roll with a knuckleballer?

It’s a difficult decision, especially given the pitchers’ contrasting styles, but Kelly strengthened his case to stay put by snapping his career-long nine-start winless stretch in notable fashion.

“Just keep pitching,” Kelly said of the situation. “That’s it.”

Kelly pitched Saturday. And he pitched well. It’s hard to ask for much more right now.

Thumbnail photo via Gregory Fisher/USA TODAY Sports Images

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