The strangest inning of Joe Kelly’s bleak season began with four straight balls to Shohei Ohtani. It was the eighth inning at Angel Stadium, the Dodgers and Angels were tied, and Kelly was in a high-leverage spot for the first time in over a month.
The Dodgers had prepared Kelly for this situation — the kind they envisioned him regularly pitching through when they gave him a three-year, $25-million contract in December — by letting him build confidence and momentum in mop-up spots after he spent the first month-plus of the season posting an earned-run average north of 10. It took one at-bat Monday night to realize the effort was for naught.
By the end of the inning, the 31-year-old Kelly had allowed two runs without giving up a hit. He recorded three strikeouts, two unintentional walks, an intentional walk, two wild pitches, another misfire to the backstop, and a throwing error. The only ball in play was a weak chopper to the third baseman.
“It can't get any more bizarre,” Kelly said after the Dodgers’ 5-3 loss. “I guess it's average for right now.”
One of the two runs was earned, hiking Kelly’s earned-run average from 7.52 to 7.59 — the fourth-highest mark in baseball among qualified relievers — in 21⅓ innings across 22 appearances. His previous eight outings, in which he allowed two earned runs in seven innings, had all been with the Dodgers leading or trailing by at least four runs. Through 67 games, he is the weakest link in the flawed L.A. bullpen.
“We have a few other guys down tonight,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “And I still felt confident that Joe right there can go out there and execute pitches. But it just didn't work out. We're going to need him, that's just plain and simple. So we’ve got to figure out a way to — mechanical, emotional, mental — just kind of tap into something and get him on track.”
After walking Ohtani, Kelly struck out the next batter, Kole Calhoun, with four strikes — swinging, called, foul ball and called. Odd chaos followed. Kelly tried picking off Ohtani at first base, but his throw was wild and Ohtani advanced to second. With first base open and Kelly down 2-0 against Brian Goodwin, the Dodgers decided to walk him intentionally. Kelly next threw a wild pitch — a curveball in the dirt — to advance the runners.
Two pitches later, he threw a curveball near Jonathan Lucroy’s head. A 97-mph fastball to the backstop later in the at-bat ricocheted directly to catcher Russell Martin to keep Ohtani from scoring. Kelly walked Lucroy on five pitches to load the bases and coax pitching coach Rick Honeycutt from the dugout for a visit. Yimi Garcia was warming in the bullpen, but Kelly remained in the game.
Wilfredo Tovar was the first Angel to put the ball in play, hitting a soft dribbler to third baseman Max Muncy, who charged the ball and fired high home. The throw forced Martin to jump off the plate. Ohtani slid in feet first around the plate and swiped it with his left hand. The Dodgers challenged the play. The replay suggested Martin landed on the plate before Ohtani’s hand touched, but the call stood and the Angels had the lead.
Goodwin crossed the plate on Kelly’s second wild pitch — a 90-mph changeup at Luis Rengifo’s legs — to give the Angels a 5-3 lead. Kelly completed the 31-pitch debacle by striking out Rengifo and Kole Calhoun. Roberts mentioned he threw good pitches in those at-bats. They came too late.
"I think right there it sped up," Roberts said. "He made some good pitches after the damage was done."
Kelly lamented his inability to throw first-pitch strikes. Of the seven batters he faced, he landed first-pitch strikes only to the three he struck out. He finished with 15 strikes to 16 balls. Roberts said he thought the “misfires” were — at least partly — the result of trying too hard. Kelly rejected the premise. He said he thought the problem was “execution.”
Nearly halfway through the season, whatever the reasons are, consistency remains elusive and the results remain unsightly.