PHOENIX — For four seasons, Merrill Kelly toiled in the Korea Baseball Organization, confident he would one day find his way to the major leagues. He would start every morning by checking on the progress of friends who had already made it there.
“I accepted the fact that that was my career at the time until the foreseeable future, but I definitely didn’t accept that that was my career, and that was where it was going to finish,” Kelly said.
He was right, and on Monday, he confirmed why he belonged. The Arizona Diamondbacks’ go-to starter kept his team’s season alive as he quieted Philadelphia bats in Game 6 of the NLCS at Citizens Bank Park.
“He cares about getting better, and that’s part of the process of being a big leaguer,” outfielder Tommy Pham said after the 5-1 Diamondbacks victory..
Kelly previously made a tone-setting start in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, shutting out the NL West champions over 6 1/3 innings by striking out five and allowing just three hits. Although Kelly struggled in his first start of the NLCS, allowing three home runs against the Phillies, he bounced back, allowing just one run over five innings and striking out eight Monday.
“My priority was not necessarily to change the whole game plan, not really go back to the whole drawing board, but more of just focus on each and every pitch and just try my best to execute,” Kelly said.
Kelly was visibly upset after manager Torey Lovullo shook his hand after the fifth inning. Kelly pitched a 1-2-3 fifth, striking out two against the top of the Phillies order.
“He’s an unbelievable competitor, never wants to be taken out of a game until his tank is absolutely empty,” Lovullo said. “He was making statements to me that told me that he was capable of going back out there, but I have to be the parent in the room and make a tough decision and hand it over to the bullpen that’s been very, very efficient.”
The Arizona State product had a long road to get back to the majors. The Diamondbacks signed Kelly to a two-year contract before the 2019 season after he pitched four years in the KBO. After two solid seasons with the Diamondbacks, Kelly signed a two-year extension with a club option for the 2026 season.
“It’s one thing to get here,” Pham said. “It’s another thing to get here and continue to work on getting better at your craft. That’s something about Merrill that I’ve learned a lot about.”
In Game 7 Tuesday, the Diamondbacks will start rookie Brandon Pfaadt against Phillies left-hander Ranger Suarez. Pfaadt will make his fourth start of the postseason and his second of the NLCS.
In Game 3 of this series, Pfaadt shut out the Phillies lineup over 5 ⅔ innings, striking out 9. He’s the first pitcher in MLB history to have back-to-back postseason starts of five or more shutout innings without allowing a walk.
“I’m probably going to tell (Pfaadt) to do what he did at home,” Kelly said. “He threw a really good game at home against these guys and I think he’s going to be a really good pitcher in this league for a long time.”