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The potential importance of Joe Kelly's showdown with Aaron Judge

Rob Bradford
October 01, 2018 - 12:06 pm

Maybe it was one just one meaningless at-bat in a meaningless game.

But, then again, maybe it wasn't.

Joe Kelly's showdown with Aaron Judge in the third inning Sunday should have offered some insight to the Red Sox' way of thinking heading into the American League Division Series. Sure, we don't know if Kelly is going to even be on the postseason roster. ("I do not," he told when asked after Sunday's game if he knew his status for the playoffs.) And there is no certainty the Red Sox will even be facing off with the Yankees.

But there is a chance both could happen. And that's why that one at-bat should come under some scrutiny.

To set the scene ...

After allowing a leadoff single to Neil Walker and walk to Adeiny Hechavarria, Kelly came back to strike out Brett Gardner. (Gardner is now 0-for-10 with 7 strikeouts against the reliever.)

Up came Judge. Heading into the at-bat the Yankees slugger was 2-for-9 with three strikeouts against Kelly. He remains perhaps the most important piece of a historically powerful Yankees lineup, totaling five homers against the Red Sox during the regular season.

This time the game wasn't exactly on the line, but if Judge did manage to do some damage Kelly's lot in life when it came to pitching the next few weeks might have become murky. But after missing with two 99 mph fastballs, the pitcher got back in the count with a fouled-off heater. The count went to 3-1 after missing with a curveball, but Kelly didn't give in, coming back with a changeup which Judge fouled off.

Then, with the count full, Kelly did exactly what the Red Sox need him to do in such situations: He fooled Judge with a curveball which the righty hitter grounded up the middle for an inning-ending, 4-3 double play.

"With him up, there’s always a chance for him to leave the yard," Kelly said. "Falling behind him 2-0 and then knowing my stuff plays to get him to hit into a ground ball double play on a 3-2 curveball is big. That confidence is there. The way I’m throwing the ball if guys get on base that’s alright. Early in the year it might not have been a good thing, but right now if guys get on base it’s not a big deal to me because I have a chance. If they’re going to score it’s going to be a bloop most likely. I haven’t let too many guys square me this year. For the most part the problem is I’ve beat myself the whole year. It’s not like people are out there whooping my ass. I feel comfortable right now and feel like I’m in a good spot moving forward."

Despite his inconsistency throughout the season, there are a few aspects of Kelly's game that might play in his favor. He has been decent with runners in scoring position, with the Yankees going 3-for-14 without a home run against the pitcher in such situations this year. He also doesn't give up a lot of home runs (4 this season), a definite plus when it comes to facing the Yankees.

There is also 16 games of postseason experience, including five relief outings over the past two seasons in which he hasn't allowed a run.

It would seem to that Kelly would be competing with the likes of Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree, Bobby Poyner and Brian Johnnson to be one of the final two relievers on the Red Sox postseason roster. But Sunday certainly didn't hurt his cause.

"It’s something I’ve done before. It’s not going to be new," Kelly said of pitching in the playoffs. "I feel like in the big pressure situations I end up coming through. It’s something I feel like I thrive on. I feel like I’m throwing the ball good right now."