World Series Game 2: Kelly’s Blue Book

"I decided to take a look back just to double-check that it said 'World Series' behind me," said the Diamondbacks's Game 2 starting pitcher, Merrill Kelly, the day before. Then, he went to work Saturday night and made easier work of the Rangers than many might have expected him to make.

He looks more than a little like comedian Chris Elliott, and he took an unusual route to get to the Show in the first place. But nobody's laughing at Kelly after what he and his Diamondbacks did, one night after they got hammered out of a lead and into an 11-inning Game One loss.

Not after Kelly pitched seven innings of 3-hit, 1-run baseball while his fellow Snakes pecked, poked, and pried 9 runs out of the Rangers to even this World Series at a game apiece.

Not after the Diamondbacks atoned for losing a 2-run lead in the Game 1 ninth with a 7-run spread of 2 in the seventh, 3 in the eighth, and 2 more for good measure in the ninth Sunday night.

Not after the only hit the Rangers could summon up after Kelly and the Diamondbacks handed off to their bullpen was a leadoff ninth-inning single by Marcus Semien that went for nothing with a line out, a called strikeout, a walk, but another lineout ended the 9-1 D'backs win.

Not after Diamondbacks second baseman Ketel Marte showed the Rangers they weren't the only ones with men who could reach and re-write a page or two in the postseason record books — even if it took him until the eighth inning to hit the 2-run single that gave him a record 18-game postseason hitting streak.

Not after ancient Evan Longoria dropped a sacrifice bunt that went for naught in the third but stuck in the mind of Rangers third baseman Josh Jung when Longoria batted in the seventh. That's when Diamondbacks center fielder Alek Thomas opened with a double, then Jung played on the edge of the inner infield grass and Longoria swatted a single off Jung's glove and into left enough to send Thomas home with the third Arizona run.

That's right. The game was tighter than a rush hour crowd on a subway platform for six innings. The Snakes posted a pair in the fourth when catcher Gabriel Moreno wrestled Rangers starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery into a full count before hitting one over the center field fence, and designated hitter Tommy Pham's 2-out double was rewarded with left fielder Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. singling him home.

The Rangers got one back when their own DH Mitch Garver hit a 1-1 service from Kelly into the left field seats. And that's where things stayed until the seventh. Until Longoria's RBI single was followed by Corbin Carroll's RBI single in that inning. Until Marte's record-setter and Carroll's immediate RBI single in the eighth.

Until the insult-to-injury 2-run single in the ninth that might have helped setup more but for late Snakes third base insertion Emmanuel Rivera (who hit it) getting thrown out trying to stretch for second base.

Marte wasn't the only Diamondback to join or expand the postseason record book. Longoria became only the fourth man to get a World Series hit before age 23 and after age 38 — joining Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Pee Wee Reese, and Eddie Murray.

But most eyes were upon Kelly. The 35-year-old right-hander went from the minors to a four-year term in Korea, where he says he really learned how to pitch mostly by the proverbial seat of his pants. The Diamondbacks took a chance. They're reaping rewards some might call unforeseen.

On the regular season, Kelly could be remarkable and about average. He struck out 9.1 per nine, but walked 3.5 per nine. He led the National League with 33 starts in 2022 but has a lifetime 4.02 fielding-independent pitching rate.

He kept the Dodgers in check during his divsion series start (no runs, 3 hits, 3 walks, 5punchouts), but he and his Snakes were bludgeoned by the Phillies in National League Championship Series Game 2, especially after he was taken over the fences twice by Kyle Schwarber and once by Trea Turner.

But Kelly recovered well enough to allow only 1 Phillie run on 3 hits and three walks in Game 6, while striking out 8 in five innings' work, setting the stage for the Diamondbacks dispatching the Phillies in a comparative whimper. Now he stood as the guy who made a once-impossible dream come true for one World Series game at least.

Montgomery wasn't exactly terrible, even if this was one time his ability to get away with sinkers that don't sink all the way betrayed him when Moreno took him long. And he did give the Rangers all the room they'd need to win. But Kelly didn't let the Rangers get into his head and, in fact, juggled his entire kit bag of pitches to strike the side out in the sixth.

"I've been kind of saying he's the most underrated pitcher in baseball," said Diamondbacks pitching ace Zac Gellen, a day after the Rangers yanked three runs out of him en route the Game 1 Rangers win. "How it's gone that way this long, I think it's the market we play in. But the guy posts. And when he does, you see what it is."

"I think we realized the second time through the lineup," said Garver, who did reach him for that homer, "that we weren't getting too many pitches to hit. He executed his stuff and a lot of times, we ran out of barrel."

This time, Kelly had the Rangers over a barrel. It also enabled Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo to leave his absolute best relief pitchers alone and save them for the Phoenix swing of the Series. Not to mention Rangers manager Bruce Bochy still having his better relievers available for that swing, with veteran starter Martín Pérez going out for the Game 2 eighth and taking a 4-run one for the team over the final inning and a third Saturday night.

"We'd be naive to think that we're going to run away with four in a row against a team that really fights hard, the same way we did," said Rangers first baseman Nathaniel Lowe. "They had to go through the wild-card round and all the way through, and they're here. It's a resilient bunch over there, but we're pretty confident in our group, too."

Rangers beware: his first World Series start didn't intimidate Kelly at all. "I think going over to Korea as a 26-year-old is way scarier than pitching in the big leagues or even the World Series, to be honest," he said. "It felt literally and figuratively miles away when I was over there."

Even in Globe Life Field as opposed to Chase Field, there was no place like home.

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