Kelly aces his big-time test

Young pitcher impresses in outing against Rays

Casey Kelly allowed two runs in three solid innings against the Rays, pitching mostly against Tampa Bay regulars. Casey Kelly allowed two runs in three solid innings against the Rays, pitching mostly against Tampa Bay regulars. (J. Meric/Getty Images)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 31, 2010

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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Bill Hall, a big leaguer for eight seasons but new to the Red Sox, didn’t pay close attention to the rookies in camp. So you’ll have to excuse the astonished expression on his face when he learned yesterday that Casey Kelly spent half of last season playing shortstop.

“That kid?’’ said Hall, motioning over to the tall 20-year-old righthander. “C’mon. He was a shortstop?’’

It’s true, Hall was told. Kelly pitched only 95 innings last season, then played shortstop for the final two months. It wasn’t until late November that he decided to devote himself to pitching after a meeting with organization executives.

“Impressive,’’ Hall said. “He’s going to be back here pretty soon.’’

Kelly left the Red Sox wanting more. Yesterday, he surrendered two runs over three innings against the Tampa Bay Rays. He gave up four hits, walked two, and struck out four before getting a round of handshakes and back slaps from teammates.

The only voice Kelly could hear in the crowd was that of his mother, Becky. She led a pack of family and friends from his nearby hometown of Sarasota.

“Kind of fun to watch it,’’ Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “That was some good stuff today.’’

Pitching before a sellout crowd at Charlotte Sports Park and the cameras of ESPN, Kelly faced a lineup that included Jason Bartlett, Pat Burrell, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton, and Ben Zobrist.

Only five days earlier, before a sparse gathering at a minor league game, Kelly had started against Tampa’s Double A team.

“To be able to pitch against them was awesome,’’ Kelly said. “To be able to compete with them and throw your best stuff when they had their best stuff.’’

The Red Sox had Kelly with them early in camp, and he pitched two innings in relief in one game before being demoted to the minor league complex March 14. But they planned to bring him back for one more game to get another gauge of where he stood in his development.

“I found out three or four days ago,’’ Kelly said. “I was nervous three days straight.’’

It didn’t show. After Bartlett started the game with a double, Kelly struck out Crawford on a 3-and-2 fastball that caught the outside corner. The All-Star outfielder fouled off three two-strike pitches before Kelly got him.

Kelly then got Zobrist and Pena to ground out, using the two-seam sinking fastball he has been working on.

The second inning was more of the same as Kelly struck out Upton. The trouble didn’t start until the third. With two outs and a runner on second, Crawford reached on a bunt single, getting to the bag just ahead of Kelly’s throw.

“It was a bang-bang play,’’ Kelly said. “But being my first start, he definitely wins that battle.’’

Zobrist walked before Pena jumped on the first pitch for a two-run single.

But a composed Kelly, who used a bright red glove, came back to strike out Upton for the second time, ending his outing. Francona did not go to the mound for a pep talk. He wanted to see whether Kelly could clean up his own mess.

“I think we know he’s a pretty special kid,’’ Francona said. “It was a nice day. We’re deep into spring training and we’re trying to get ready for a season. To be able to mix him in today, that was OK.’’

Kelly grabbed two slices of pizza, said goodbye to his mom, and boarded the bus back to Fort Myers after the game ended in a 9-9 tie. His day in the spotlight was over.

“I think I’ve learned more in these three or four weeks that I was [in big-league camp] than I did all last season pitching,’’ he said. “That makes you feel good. Being in those situations is only going to help me this season.’’

Something would have to go terribly wrong for Kelly to pitch in a game for Boston this season. He is expected to start the season with Double A Portland and will be on an innings limit given his age and lack of experience.

But that could change next spring if he develops as quickly as the Red Sox hope.

“I definitely have a long way to go,’’ Kelly said. “That’s the reason for this, to see where I’m at. Just to be able to be in this locker room and pitch for this team, I know I made the right decision.’’

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