With spring athletics getting under way for the Dukes this month and the star athletes becoming all the chatter throughout campus, none have more heat going their way than sophomore Kevin Kelly, pitcher for JMU baseball. A stud relief pitcher — and starter when needed — Kelly has been the catalyst for the Dukes’ hot start to the year and is continuing to build off his impressive rookie campaign.
In his first season with the Dukes, the Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American was lights out, striking out 38 batters in 34 innings pitched. His five wins and 2.91 ERA led the team last year, and batters hit a measly .244 against the right-hander. While Kelly dominated the mound his freshman year, the Dukes went 24-27 on the season including a horrendous 7-17 in the CAA. Despite his team’s lack of success as a unit, Kelly laid the foundation for an outstanding career.
“He’s very humble,” assistant coach/pitching coach Jimmy Jackson said. “If you even joke with him about being a freshman All-American he just smiles and shakes his head no. To him, it’s no big deal.”
Kelly spent the offseason working on the one thing that would perfect his approach on the mound: honing in his changeup. While Kelly did have a lot of success against right-handed batters, the lefties had an easy time reaching base — something Kelly was not willing to let slide by. Adding a changeup in both of his pitching motions would make it difficult for lefties to get an easy read on his pitch, making it a necessary development.
Poised for another year of success, Kelly took the mound for the first time in 2.2 innings of relief against the High Point Panthers. While he did give up one earned run, hisscorching arm struck out five batters and allowed just two hits on the way to his first save of the season. He would follow his first performance up with another five-strikeout showing, albeit earning a loss after giving up a run late in the game. He’d quickly rebound in his third performance, earning his second save of the year against The State University of New York at Albany. He’s amassed 11 strikeouts and a 2.57 ERA in seven innings pitched this year, an electric start for this surging unit.
“Watching him develop over time has been a really impressive transition,” head coach Marlin Ikenberry said. “We knew he was going to be solid.”
Aside from his newly developed changeup, there’s another beaming difference between this season and the one before: The Dukes are actually winning games. With JMU sitting at 7-2 on the young season, Kelly’s success is finally being complemented with the team as a whole, making the early part of the season much more enjoyable than his first year in purple and gold. While Kelly has all the investment in ensuring individual success, he knows it means nothing if it doesn’t translate to wins.
“Individually, I’m trying to do just as well or better as last year,” Kelley said. “But as a team we’re aiming for the CAA Championship. We’ve got to hold up our end pitching-wise.”
Another unique aspect of Kelly’s game is his personality on and off the field. Unlike a majority of closers at the collegiate and professional levels — who are commonly high intensity and exuberant characters — Kelly is a silent killer on the mound. He keeps to himself, remains humble throughout and excels both on the field and in class — an abnormality at his position, without a doubt. The coaches, however, have no issue with Kelly quietly flying under the radar.
“He’s extremely low maintenance,” Ikenberry said. “He goes about his business the right way and you don’t even have to worry about him.”
Just because Kelly has a timid approach to the game doesn’t mean his teammates and coaching staff are modest when talking about his play. From the heat that he brings to his composure in tight situations, their star pitcher is talked about among the team as the toughest guy to get a hit off in practice. Everyone around the Dukes noticed his confidence grow throughout the year.
“The better he did and the more he pitched, the more confidence he got,” Jackson said. “And it helped that his teammates all the time were telling him how nasty his stuff was.”
The present and future of JMU baseball, off to another tremendous start in his young career, is keeping his mouth sealed shut. He’ll let his cannon of an arm do all the talking for him.
Contact Blake Pace at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more baseball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.