Pitching for the first time in five years, the ex-Red Sox right-hander tosses 3 13 scoreless innings Saturday night for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, striking out two.
Joe Kelly’s ascent to the eighth inning has been pretty darn rapid.
Tyler Thornburg’s questionable right shoulder and the loss of other relievers elsewhere -- remember Koji Uehera, now of the World Champion Cubs? -- have thrown him into the spotlight.
That doesn’t make Kelly anything close to a certainty, though.
Entering spring training, even Craig Kimbrel, one of the very best closers around, faced some doubt after control flare-ups a year ago.
In Kelly, the Sox have an overpowering righty who couldn’t harness his stuff in the past. Someone who conspired with Clay Buchholz in making the Red Sox rotation look dismal midseason.
Kelly’s ineffectiveness last year, in fact, was one of the reasons they traded for Drew Pomeranz on July 14. And, logically, one of the reasons the Red Sox did not want to subsequently rescind the trade for Pomeranz.
The last start Kelly made with the Red Sox (and possibly in his big-league career) was on June 1 against the Orioles. He allowed seven runs in 2 1/3 innings and was immediately demoted.
He didn’t make it back to Boston until late July.
The best reasons to believe in Kelly now, in Thornburg’s absence, are straightforward: he was awesome at the end of last year, and he is overpowering.
In an eye-opening September, he held hitters to a .180 average in 14 innings. He gave up one earned run, carrying a 0.64 ERA, struck out 20 and walked just three.
That’s awesome potential.
He’s always had that, if nothing else, though: potential. What’s to say Kelly lives up to it? He might. There’s just not a lot to hang your hat on.
In eight innings this spring, Kelly has as many walks, seven, as he does strikeouts.
“The point we’re trying to stress to him, no one in this game is perfect,” Sox manager John Farrell told reporters Monday, including the Boston Herald. “He doesn’t have to be perfect with every pitch located. He has premium stuff. Trust it, and get ahead in the count a little bit more frequently.”
Early in spring training, Kelly talked about how he was still learning on the job, as you’d expect. That’s going to continue to be the case, and he'll continue to have to prove he's at last arrived.
Blake Swihart wasn't going to win a job. Monday merely made that official.
Swihart was optioned out as the Red Sox made further cuts, sending a player who could still be the Red Sox catcher of the future -- well, one of them anyway -- to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he's expected to work on his receiving.
Swihart hit .325 in 40 Grapefruit League at-bats.
"Had a very strong camp and showed improvements defensively. Swung the bat very well," manager John Farrell told reporters in Florida. "For the player that he is and the person that he is, you love him as a person. He's a hell of a talented player.
"He made some subtle adjustments with his setup [defensively]. That gave him a different look to pitchers on the mound. Pitchers talked positively about the look that they got from him behind the plate. I think it softened his hands somewhat to receive the ball better. And there were a number of occasions where he was able to get a pitchers' pitch called for a strike, so the presentation of the umpire was a little bit more subtle and consistent then maybe years' past."
Sandy Leon's hot hitting in 2016 earned him an automatic crack at the lead catching spot for this year. Combined with the fact that Christian Vazquez looks great defensively, went deep on Sunday and is out of options, Swihart was the obvious odd man out.
He had options, the others didn't.
Deven Marrero was also optioned to Pawtucket. Sam Travis -- who, like Swihart, could break camp with the 2018 team -- was reassigned to minor-league camp, as was catcher Dan Butler.
The Sox have 38 players left in camp, 32 from the 40-man roster.