ATLANTA - Just ask Shawn Kelley about his pitching last season: He knew it wasn’t close to what he was capable of delivering.
Kelley struggled through injury and rough outings, stumbling to a career-worst 7.27 ERA. This followed back-to-back seasons of 2.45 and 2.67 ERAs.
The right-hander landed on the disabled list several times last season with a strained lower back, strained right trapezius muscle and, finally, bone chips in his right elbow.
Fast forward to 2018. Kelley watched as the Nats got off to a nice start, 3-0 in Cincinnati. But cold weather and game situations prevented Kelley from pitching. Monday night in Atlanta he finally got his shot, and he was tremendous.
Call it old school Kelley.
Kelley struck out two in a shutout eighth inning for the Nats in an 8-1 win Monday. After all he went through in 2017, when the Nats were so good, Kelley desperately wanted to prove that he could pitch well too.
“Yeah, it felt good. I warmed up. Good weather tonight,” Kelley said of Monday’s outing. “I was able to get loose quick and then I went out there, and soon as that first batter stepped in I got a little extra adrenalin that I hadn’t had. Just tried to use it. Tried to tell you guys that would happen. It’s good, though, to get the first one out of the way. First one of the year, get it under your belt and (have) it go well and for me feeling good and feeling strong. Couldn’t ask for more on the first one.”
Manager Davey Martinez said the main reason he didn’t employ Kelley in Ohio over the weekend was the chilly temperatures.
“I really want to make sure we take care of him, especially in the cold weather, Martinez said. “This was the perfect night for him to pitch. I was really a little frantic to pitch him in Cincinnati because of the cold weather and because of his health. We want him to be right, and we want him for the whole year.”
Kelley was briefed by Martinez prior to Monday’s opener in Atlanta, where the game time temperature was 77 degrees. The weather is expected to be similar today. But Kelley had the unenviable distinction of being the only Nats relief pitcher who had not appeared in a game until Monday. Of course, winning pitcher Tanner Roark and newly activated catcher Pedro Severino also hadn’t played in a Nats regular season game yet either. That all changed Monday.
“We talked a little bit today and the last day in Cincy about we wouldn’t necessarily get me out there just to get me out there,” Kelley said of his meeting with Martinez. “If he needed me, fine. I think whether it was a plan or a blessing in disguise, either way, coming here and getting one under my belt while it was nice and warm was probably the best for my elbow.”
Kelley retired three batters in a row Monday night, two by strikeout. Severino said Kelley’s slider was working well. Mixed in with his four-seam fastball, it was too much for Braves hitters to handle.
“I know what I can do,” Kelley said. “Do I want to get it back on track? Hell, yeah. That last year wasn’t fun for me, personally, but the success our team had helped a lot to keep me sane. Regardless of what happens after this in my career I do really want to have a good 2018, so I’m going to do everything I can to do that, and for me it’s just staying healthy.”
Kelley said he didn’t do much soul-searching in the offseason about his 2017 struggles, but rather concentrated on what he needed to do to get healthy. It was more about building back strength in his shoulder and feeling 100 percent.
“It was just resting,” Kelley said. “It was just really focusing on my shoulder to take pressure off my elbow and working on my core and my leg strength, and then continuing that in spring with (strength and conditioning coach) Matt (Eiden) in the weight room. So just keeping my strength up was the big goal. I feel strong right now.”