ATLANTA — Dusty Baker called Shawn Kelley into the visiting manager’s office at SunTrust Park on Wednesday afternoon to deliver the news with a clear message: He was replacing Blake Treinen as the Washington Nationals’ closer, but the move didn’t change the need for consistent, open dialogue between the reliever and the coaching staff.
“He just said, ‘Moving forward, you’re going to be the closer, but you still got to be honest with us about your arm and how you feel and we’re still going to be cautious about your pitches,’” Kelley recalled. “’We’re not going to just run you out there just because you’re the closer.’”
A few minutes later, Baker announced that Kelley and Koda Glover will share the closing duties, but the split isn’t expected to be even. Glover said he wasn’t summoned to Baker’s office to hear he had been promoted. Kelley was because he is the closer whenever his right elbow, which has undergone two Tommy John surgeries, permits and he insists it will be nearly as often as the typical closer. Kelley was available Thursday against the Braves and allowed a couple of base runners, but pitched a scoreless ninth inning for his second save this season, the 13th of his career, and his first since officially assuming his new role in Washington’s 3-2 win.
“It’s not some big thing where this guy can only pitch like once a week or whatever,” the 32-year-old Kelley said. “I mean I threw 67 games last year and then twice in the playoffs and had my best year and didn’t spent a day on the DL.”
Kelley had a 2.64 ERA in a career-high 58 innings across those 67 appearances. But he understands his situation is unique and candidly acknowledges his limitations. He said the biggest difference between him and those without a history of two Tommy John surgeries is recovery. He needs a few days off when he pitches three or four straight days. But he said pitching every other day, which has done since April 6, is merely a coincidence.
“It’s really not that much any different than anybody else,” Kelley said. “I just think in the old days you’d say that a closer would go four, five, six days in a row. Whatever you need. Obviously, my career would be over if I tried to do that.”
The reality is that Kelley has been one pitch from the end of his baseball career since he went under the knife for the second time in 2010. Others have returned to pitch after a second Tommy John surgery — Chris Capuano and Joe Nathan, for instance. And the list is growing. But Kelley reckons he has appeared in the most games of any member of the club by far.
“I’m in uncharted territory nobody’s been in,” Kelley said. “There’s no studies. There’s no math. There’s no science on where I’m at with how many games I’ve thrown coming back off a second Tommy John and knowing you really can’t have a third.”
Kelley said the Nationals monitor every pitch every member of the pitching staff throws — in games, in the bullpen during games, between games — but they probably pay closer attention to his workload than others’. It took time, but he’s grown accustomed to the special treatment.
“They probably make the decision about me more than I do,” Kelley said. “Whereas typically I think if someone says, ‘Hey I’m good to go,’ they take your word for it. There’s probably days where I am good to go and I say I’m good to go but they might try to stay away from me. That’s the nature of it. And it’s something that I’ve had to accept over the last few years. I think it’s helped me and the team to go about it that way.”
On the mound, Kelley and Treinen are different types of pitchers. Treinen has the more electric stuff, but he’s a sinkerballer and groundball specialist — he posted the second-highest groundball rate in the baseball last year. Kelley, on the other hand, relies more on strikeouts and issues fewer walks. While Treinen averaged 8.5 strikeouts and 4.2 walks per nine innings last year, Kelley struck out 12.4 batters and walked 1.7 per nine innings. Entering Thursday, it was 13.5 and 3.0.
“I don’t pitch to contact,” Kelley said. “I want to strike everybody out. That’s the best possible outcome.”
Kelley’s mentality was evident Thursday. After getting two outs, he surrendered a single to Kurt Suzuki to bring up Tyler Flowers. Kelley’s plan was to throw sliders to Flowers and he didn’t diverge from it even when he fell behind 3-1. He still threw Flowers another one and he walked him.
“I did everything exactly how I wanted to do to Flowers,” Kelley said. “Either walk him or try to get a swing-and-miss on my slider.”
The walk was irrelevant because Ender Inciarte flew out to end the game on Kelley’s 21st pitch. He’ll be ready to throw more Friday in New York if the Nationals need him to.