After shaky debut, Kelley quietly dominant out of Nats bullpen

KANSAS CITY - The Nationals gave Shawn Kelley a three-year, $15 million contract over the winter because they believed he was a guy they could trust to pitch in big spots late in ballgames.

And they couldn't have found a much bigger spot to throw Kelley into for his first assignment this season: a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the bottom of the eighth inning of a tie game on opening day.

Kelley-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpgSo when Kelley proceeded to walk that batter (Atlanta's Adonis Garcia) on four pitches (all of them at least a foot below the strike zone, a couple of them bouncing in the dirt) and subsequently get yanked by manager Dusty Baker, it wasn't unfair to question just how much the Nationals would be trusting him in the future.

Turns out Kelley hasn't come close to doing anything like that since. He has made nine relief appearances since, has yet to give up a run and hasn't walked another batter.

"I still don't know what happened in that one," said the veteran right-hander, who ultimately was bailed out when his teammates rallied to tie in the ninth and win in the 10th. "That's never happened to me before. When I miss, I miss up. I don't ever throw fastballs into the ground. I still don't know what happened there."

This much Kelley did know: He didn't want to dwell on that inauspicious debut, and the best way to do that was to return to the mound quickly and write a new narrative.

"It's tough, because it's the first one. And it could've cost us the game," he said. "But it just really wasn't me, and I felt like, man, I need to get back out there. Because that wasn't right."

Kelley has been entirely right since then. Opponents have reached base at a mere .226 clip against him this season, with a paltry OPS of .459. He has surrendered just one extra-base hit.

Along the way, Baker has begun to entrust some important innings to Kelley, though he still seems to be behind Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero on the depth chart. Kelley takes no issue with that.

"I think he can trust all seven of us down there," the 32-year-old said. "We've got a great pen and we all feed off each other. We've all pitched in different roles. And ideally, you don't want just a few guys you can trust. You want to be able to use anybody any night. And that's what we've been doing. You'll see one night we use one guy, and then the next night we use another. It allows guys to get rest and stay fresh, because if we're talking about wanting to play into October, we can't be blowing out in April. It's been real good. It's been a good group."

The lack of ego among members of the Nationals bullpen has made everything easier for a group that entered the day with an National League-best 2.58 ERA.

"It's huge," Kelley said. "That's part of it, because you want guys out there that are rooting for each other, pulling for each and having each other's back when they come in. And we do, we have that."

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