Wildcats and Sun Devils aren't generally the best of friends. But for this D-backs squad, the feuding schools have a chance to put aside their differences and work to make the state of Arizona proud.
D-backs right-handers Kevin Ginkel (University of Arizona) and Merrill Kelly (Arizona State University) may come from the worst of enemies, but have both been irreplaceable aspects of the Diamondbacks' Cinderella season.
Ginkel played just one season with the University of Arizona, but it was, unsurprisingly, a dominant one. In 2016, Ginkel pitched 64 1/3 innings over 25 appearances, striking out 45 batters and sporting a sturdy 2.80 ERA and 1.119 WHIP. Ginkel was drafted by both the Giants and Red Sox originally but did not sign either time. He would sign with Arizona after being drafted in the 22nd round.
He continued his dominance in the minors. From 2016-2019, he pitched to a 2.35 ERA and 1.034 WHIP, striking out an incredible 295 batters in just 203 1/3 innings of work. In 2019, the Diamondbacks brought up up to the major leagues, where he spent the latter half of the season continuing his tear.
Ginkel struggled in later MLB seasons, but the 2023 campaign has been his biggest breakout season so far.
The D-backs bullpen was--to say the least--in disarray. However, Ginkel's dominance and energy provided one of the brightest spots on the staff. He pitched to a 2.18 ERA through July and was given the opportunity to close games in late July. He picked up saves in his first three opportunities, including two electric outings against the NL-topping Braves.
Once the D-backs acquired closer Paul Sewald from the Mariners, Ginkel was able to fully excel in the late setup role. Ginkel sported a 4-1 post-deadline record, striking out 32 batters in 24 innings of work and finishing his regular season with a 2.48 ERA. To say the reliever is a huge part of the D-backs making the playoffs is an understatement, but his playoff stats have looked even more impressive so far.
Ginkel has pitched 8 of the D-backs 12 playoff games, pitching in every close contest. His cumulative postseason stats resemble a dominant complete-game shutout. In nine full innings, Ginkel has allowed just six hits and two walks, striking out 13 batters and pitching more than a full inning twice, with rest days being few and infrequent. Ginkel's dominance in the seventh and eighth innings of critical playoff games has been instrumental in locking down games late.
On the other side of the territorial feud is veteran starter Merrill Kelly. Kelly played his high school ball at Desert Mountain High School, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Despite being drafted by the Orioles, Kelly remained in Arizona and pitched at Yavapai College for two seasons, sporting a 15-1 record there, and pitching to a 1.48 ERA in 2009. He was drafted again, this time by the Red Sox, but returned to college again, this time to pitch at Arizona State.
As a Sun Devil, Kelly started 18 games, going 10-3 and producing a 4.23 ERA. He was drafted by the Rays in the eighth round of the 2010 draft, but spent a slow journey in the minor leagues, working his way gradually up the levels. Despite pitching to a 2.76 ERA in AAA and having several successful seasons at various levels, he would not make his major league debut.
In 2015, Kelly signed with the SK Wyverns of the Korea Baseball Organization. Over four seasons, Kelly sported a 3.86 ERA, a 48-32 record, and contributed a 7-inning win in game three of the league's championship series, which the Wyverns would go on to win.
Following this season, the Diamondbacks would offer him a major league contract, and Kelly would make his MLB debut in 2019, as a 30-year-old rookie. Even through some losing team seasons, Merrill became the much-needed consistency on Arizona's pitching staff, regularly producing Quality Starts and earning the nickname "Mainstay."
Kelly has been a huge part of the D-backs' 2023 run, going 12-8 in 30 starts. He ended the regular season with a 3.29 ERA, and rivaled ace Zac Gallen's season numbers despite missing some time on the IL due to a blood clot issue in his leg.
But the postseason is, again, when the veteran has come alive.
Kelly had never beaten the LA Dodgers in his career, with dismal stats when pitching at Dodger Stadium. In game 1 of the NLDS, Kelly pitched an absolutely dominant game, going 6.1 shutout innings, allowing just three hits and striking out five Dodgers, picking up the win en route to an 11-2 blowout stunner.
Game 2 of the NLCS did not go quite as well, with Kelly being touched up for three home runs and four total runs by the Phillies over 5.2 innings. He still looked sharp, striking out six batters and looking generally solid in earlier innings, but the D-backs would ultimately end up with an ugly 10-0 loss.
In game 6, returning to Philadelphia following a deflating 6-1 loss at home and facing elimination, Kelly was determined. He struck out eight batters, allowing just one run on three hits. After striking out both Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper in the 5th, manager Torey Lovullo came to congratulate Kelly on his start--and let him know he wouldn't be back out to start the 6th.
Kelly was visibly frustrated, and reasonably so considering how flawlessly he had mowed down the Phillies' dangerous top of the order. However, Lovullo's game plan worked to perfection, as the bullpen pitched four shutout innings on the way to a 5-1 D-backs victory, forcing the ultimately victorious game seven.
One energetic reliever, one crafty veteran starter. Kevin Ginkel and Merrill Kelly might come from warring clans, but their journey to--and through--the 2023 season has led them to a postseason full of dominance, fighting to bring (another) title to the state of Arizona.