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Walk into the UC Riverside Baseball Complex and you immediately notice framed jerseys on the walls of current and former Major League players. One that stood out a little more than the rest on Monday is of Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly. He won a World Series Championship with the Boston Red Sox Sunday night, playing a pivotal role in the team's run. The right-hander pitched a perfect eighth inning in Sunday's clincher, striking out the side. During the postseason, he was close to unhittable, pitching 11 innings with 13 strikeouts. In the World Series alone, he pitched in all five games, striking out 10 batters and even getting the win in Game 4.
"That's why I love Joe; because he is intense and is emotionally invested," said UC Riverside Baseball Head Coach Troy Percival, who won a World Series in 2002 as a closer for the Angels. "I think because of his focus, he learned how to do that better than ever. He didn't flinch. He took the ball and kept attacking."
Kelly's performance in the World Series made such an impact that his glasses are headed to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. as an artifact from the World Series. "For him to come out and be better than at any point in the season, that's the sign of a true gamer," Percival said. "He's done his homework."
A local product, Kelly attended Corona High School. It was at UCR where Kelly honed his skills as a pitcher. Originally an outfielder, then-head coach Doug Smith, along with the rest of the coaching staff, decided to convert him to a pitcher his freshman year. It was a decision that changed his life. "He only pitched a couple of inning in high school, but when we saw him throwing from the outfield and then had him throw a bullpen session, we knew we had something special," Smith said. He was named Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year in 2007. In three seasons with the Highlanders, Kelly had 24 career saves and was named an All-American. Kelly made his Major League debut in 2012 with the Cardinals after being drafted by the team in the third round of the 2009 Major League Baseball draft. He spent a little over two seasons with the Cardinals before being traded to the Red Sox in 2014. Kelly continues to have a relationship with both coaches. After Smith sent Kelly a congratulatory text message Sunday night, Smith said he heard back from him at 5 a.m.
The Red Sox right-hander is proud of the three years he played for the Highlanders, coming back for the UCR Baseball Alumni game and even visiting the baseball complex on occasion to throw bullpen sessions during the off season. It's not too far of a drive from Rancho Cucamonga, where he lives during the off season.
"I think this helps the university immensely," Smith said. "Joe enjoyed his time here and really appreciated the opportunity he was given. With a lot of demands on his time, he still comes back. How special is that?"
This last off season, Kelly came out to work on adding a change up to his arsenal and showed Percival. He also visited the campus to show junior pitcher Kevin West his updated delivery and how that could help him improve. "I don't think we've seen the best of Joe Kelly yet," Percival said. "I think you are going to see what you saw in the postseason for years to come. I'm excited to see where his career goes after this."
Boston Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly ( former UCR Highlander) might not be the first name that comes to mind when thinking of baseball's elite fastballs, but the 29-year-old right-hander has turned heads this season by routinely throwing triple-digit heat.