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Who is Team USA pitcher Merrill Kelly? Arizona Diamondback’s ace starter against Japan

Kelly has made only one appearance in the WBC but will carry Team USA to the final against Japan on Tuesday

Kelly has made only one appearance in the WBC but will carry Team USA to the final against Japan on Tuesday.
Mark J. RebilasUSA TODAY Sports

Team USA will hand the ball over to Diamondbacks’ pitcher Merrill Kelly for the World Baseball Classic championship happening tonight, Tuesday, March 21st.

The 34-year-old will be facing Yu Darvish and Team Japan, which has been the most consistent team in this year’s tournament, averaging more than nine runs per game on their way to Monday’s semi-final.

Following USA’s semifinal 14-2 win over Team Cuba on Sunday, Team USA manager Mark DeRosa indicated that Kelly would likely get the ball during Tuesday’s championship. He told reporters, “obviously, it looks like it’s Merrill Kelly’s day.”

Handing the ball to Kelly in the final will place it in the hands of one of the USA’s best pitchers, despite his shaky WBC outing.

As he prepares to pitch on the biggest stage of his career, we take a look back at the road that led Kelly to start the winner-take-all WBC final.

Related: Has Japan ever won the World Baseball Classic? How many times?

Who is Merrill Kelly?

Kelly is an Arizona native who attended Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale before going to Arizona State University. He was selected in the 37th round of the 2007 MLB Draft by the Orioles, but he opted to go to the juco route at Yavapai College instead.

Kelly pitched to a 5.53 ERA in 70 innings of work with 55 strikeouts and 17 walks during his first season there. The following season, however, is when he started shining; he had an impressive 1.48 ERA in 97.1 innings of work with 88 strikeouts and only 24 walks as a sophomore in 2009. He helped the Roughriders win two straight ACCAC Conference titles.

That’s when Kelly received MLB consideration. Cleveland selected him in the 22nd round of the 2009 MLB Draft, but once again, the Arizona native turned down the chance to go pro and set his sights on the next level of college ball. He transferred to Arizona State after graduation, remaining in his home state to pitch as a junior in Tempe.

After some more MLB consideration, Kelly joined the Tampa Bay Rays as the 251st overall in the 2010 MLB Draft. From there, he went on to take his talents overseas and joined South Korea’s Wyverns of the KBO League.

That’s when Kelly’s improvement started happening on a larger scale. He was down to a 3.68 ERA in 2016 and 3.60 ERA in 2017, with him also posting a 9.0 K/9 with 189 strikeouts in 190 innings. The year after, however, his ERA went back up to 4.09, he also struck out 161 batters in 158.1 innings with only 47 walks, his first time in the pros with more strikeouts than innings pitched.

In December 2018, Kelly was signed to a minor-league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks and earned a spot on the Opening Day roster as a starter in his home state.

Last season was his best with the Diamondbacks, going 13-8 with a 3.37 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 177 strikeouts in a career-high 33 starts.

Kelly against Japan

Kelly has never pitched pitch in a postseason game with the Diamondbacks, but Tuesday will change things. Kelly pitched five days ago in a pool play game against Colombia, allowing two runs on four hits with two walks over three innings. He threw 61 pitches.

Team USA are defending WBC champions, beating Puerto Rico 8-0 in the 2017 final in Los Angeles. Japan, on the other hand, won the first two World Baseball Classics, the only team to win consecutive WBC championships.

This will be the first time the two teams face in the final.