Kelley is one of the top candidates for the Washington Nationals’ open job at closer. He’s open to any bullpen role. Kelley also says his arm feels “great” following last season’s scare.
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Shawn Kelley last walked off a major-league mound after just three pitches. He flexed his hand in a search for feeling. The numbness and tingling he felt made him think something had gone very wrong in his pitching arm, which had twice before been repaired by Tommy John surgery.
That was Oct. 13, 2016. The visual of him leaving the mound in a do-or-die playoff game indicated that, at the least, Kelley would need substantial time to fix whatever was wrong. Instead, he was playing catch two days later and began his regular throwing routine around Jan. 1.
“I went out and played catch just to make sure everything was good and it was,” Kelley said Wednesday. “If we’d have won Game 5, I would have been able to pitch in the next game. I would have been fine. It was nerve thing. Kind of a numbness nerve issue that had to quiet down. Just kind of a freak thing. I would have been fine the next day, honestly.”
He said his arm feels “great” then upgraded it to “amazing.” Now that Kelley feels good, the next question for him is the obvious one: Can he be the team’s closer?
He is 32 and has worked middle innings, as the setup man and as a part-time closer. Last season, Kelley remained effective, using his fastball 56.6 percent of the time, his most since 2011, according to Fangraphs. His 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings were a career high.
The Nationals monitored him because of his two prior surgeries. Yet, Kelley finished with career highs in appearances and innings.
Were he asked to be the closer, he would take the role. If not, he’s not concerned.
“I’ve been around a long time, I’ve pitched in every role and I take the ball when I get it,” Kelley said. “If somebody wants to name a closer, then they can name a closer. If they don’t want to name a closer, they don’t name a closer. It’s not going to affect me and I guarantee it’s not going to affect anybody in this bullpen because I’m going to make sure it doesn’t. We’re going to have the mentality that we had last year, that we’re all here to pick each other up. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Kelley is also a proponent of defined roles in the bullpen. Tuesday, Nationals manager Dusty Baker said he did not like doing closer by committee. The question for Kelley is if he could throw consecutive nights and how often, were he to be the closer. He pointed out that being in that role makes preparation and possibly arm care easier since it cuts down on the number of times a reliever warms up, but does not enter the game.
“You actually minimize some of the proverbial ‘dry humps’ where you have to get going and then you don’t get in and then it’s like ‘well you didn’t pitch yesterday, you should feel good today..well I warmed up three times so I’m actually kind of sore,’” Kelley said. “So as a closer you minimize a lot of that so you can kind of, I think you can take a little bit better care of your arm being in the closer role.
“No I’m not ever going to be a guy that’s going to throw 4-5 days in a row like [Jonathan Papelbon] used to do when he was younger or Mariano [Rivera] used to do with his rubber arm, but that’s the game now. It’s more tailored too let’s not blow out our main guys, especially early in the year. You won’t see [Mike Maddux] running anybody out there three or four times in a row in April. That’s why we have other quality arms that whoever closing, if they need a day or a couple days down the road, there’s another guy that can step and fill in the role so we don’t have to overextend or hurt anybody.”
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