LOS ANGELES — Merrill Kelly sat on the bench in the visitors’ dugout Saturday night, patiently awaiting his turn to occupy the mound at Dodger Stadium.
Kelly faced this Dodgers team sixteen times in his five-year major league career. He never defeated them. Now, Kelly is about to make his first playoff start — of course. this is his opponent.
Of course, Kelly had plenty of time to think about all this. Because, by the time he finally took the mound, his offense had put him up six runs and roughed up Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw in the top half of a 23-minute first inning.
“I watched our guys beat one of the best pitchers we’ve ever seen in our lifetime — and watched them do it in the first game I pitched in the postseason,” Kelly said. “I’m just trying to enjoy it and kind of take it all in but also stay focused and know that’s a good team and they can make a lot of runs fast.”
Kelly walks this line expertly. While the Defenders’ offense was firing on all cylinders, Kelly gave the Dodgers no chance to move an inch. He threw 6 1/3 pitches and scored no runs, winning Game 1 11-2.
In 16 regular season starts against the Los Angeles Lakers, Kelly was 0-11 with a 5.49 ERA. No pitcher in history has had a worse winless record at the start of the postseason against the opponent he was about to face.
“His attitude about it is he’s not going to let something like this happen to him again,” linebackers manager Torey Lovullo said. “I think he took it personally. His performance on the court was very, very high.”
Kelly became the first backer to start a postseason game with at least six scoreless innings since Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson and Miguel Batista did it in the 2001 World Series. Starters. He kept the Dodgers off-balance with a fairly simple combination: He filled the strike zone with a bunch of fastballs and cutters while using a changeup for changeup when needed.
“I think the main reason we were better today than (past games against the Dodgers) was just being aggressive in the zone and being able to get ahead of people,” Kelly said. “That team over there, when you get behind them, they’re really good at controlling the zone and not swinging on pitches outside the zone. I stress being aggressive.
“With a nine-point lead, it made it a lot easier.”
In fact, after Kelly held the Dodgers scoreless in the bottom of the first, the D-backs added three more runs in the second. Kelly was pitching all night and the lead might have been insurmountable.
He took no risks. Kelly allowed just three hits. He was removed in the top of the seventh inning and reached 89 in his second at-bat.
Kelly pouted as Lovullo emerged from the break room. He doesn’t want to leave. In what he later called the most important game of his career, he didn’t allow his opponent to break through one of the best offenses in the sport. Lovullo explained that Kelly will be needed again soon at D-backs.
“I had the opportunity to move forward with him,” Lovullo said, “but I told him, ‘I want to save every pitch I can. We’re already up 10-0, and there’s no point in asking you to go any further.'” He got it. “
Kelly strolled off the mound, showing little emotion until he approached the dugout. At this time, he patted his chest and looked in the direction of the D defender’s home area.
A few hours later, Kelly sat on a podium below the concourse at Dodger Stadium and reflected on his day. Of course, there were some nerves, he said. But he, uh, had a family problem.
“My dad actually missed his flight this morning,” Kelly said. “So I had to kind of mess around and figure that part out. I thought maybe that might be — even though I was a little angry at the time — I thought it might be a good distraction.”
Kelly turned his gaze directly to the camera inside the press conference room.
“Dad, thank you for not getting to the airport earlier.”
He turned back and continued: “But I tried to keep my balance and I think I did a good job.”
No points in his playoff debut against his nemesis? It’s hard to do better than this.