First, there was the crack.
On an autumn night in St. Louis in 2013, it was loud enough to be heard from the Busch Stadium press box, and deep enough to end a Dodgers season.
Joe Kelly whipped a fastball that plunked Hanley Ramirez in the side and fractured a rib, removing the Dodgers’ best offensive threat and essentially ending their National League Championship Series hopes against the Cardinals in the first inning of the first game.
Then, there was the scream.
On an autumn night in Los Angeles in 2018, it was visible enough to be captured on national television, and loud enough to be heard all the way to Boston.
Joe Kelly shouted to the sky after he struck out three consecutive Dodgers in the eighth inning with a runner on first in Game 5 of the World Series, setting the table for a Red Sox series-clinching victory one inning later.
Yeah, this swaggering guy has long had the Dodgers number, which makes it pretty great that they finally got him, reaching an agreement Thursday to employ the fearless middle reliever for three years at $25 million.
Not quite a Las Vegas winter meetings jackpot, this was more like hitting 21 at Whiskey Pete’s on the drive home, but the Dodgers still scored big.
They corrected a mistake. They cemented a hole. They fortified October. They admitted all middle relievers are not created equal. They acknowledged all high leverage situations are not interchangeable. Into their analytics soup they dumped an old-fashioned hard thrower who isn’t afraid of the moment, and by any measure, that’s a win.
No, this wasn’t Bryce Harper, but guess what? The Dodgers needed a player like Kelly as much as they need a player like Harper.
In the 98-mph-throwing Kelly, after a season of bullpen chaos, the Dodgers finally have a savvy veteran to set up Kenley Jansen.
Two years ago, they had that veteran in Brandon Morrow and came within a whisker of winning a World Series.
Last season, they spent all summer searching for one, tried to create one, hoped they could steal one, never found one and wound up finishing what seemed to be miles from winning a World Series.
The Friedman regime has long tried to fill the bullpen gaps creatively and on the cheap, and sometimes it has worked, but last October it resulted in crucial World Series failures by the likes of Ryan Madson, Dylan Floro, Scott Alexander, and converted starter Alex Wood.
Kelly can replace all of them. Kelly can be the pitcher who makes sure nobody is catching their breath before Jansen shows up. He might not be a sexy signing, but he’s a suffocating one.
During the regular season he might not be noticed much. Last year with the Red Sox, the 30-year-old from Corona High and UC-Riverside had a 4.39 ERA. He was good early, bad late, up and down throughout.
But if his history holds, once the playoffs arrive, you won’t be able to miss him. After last October, in fact, Dodgers fans will instantly recognize him.
Goggles? Beard stubble? Strikes? Yeah, that’s Kelly. He appeared in all five World Series games and allowed the Dodgers just four hits and zilch runs, striking out 10 in six innings and finishing with that Game 5 flourish.
Almost as impressive as those strikeouts of Matt Kemp, Joc Pederson and Cody Bellinger was Kelly’s descriptions of his emotions during that nerve-wracking time.
“That was the most calm I’ve been all year,’’ Kelly told reporters afterward. “I actually enjoyed the moment warming up, looking at the people around. Actually watching every step I was taking. Get on the mound. Looked around. Just went out there and said, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve all been waiting for.’ Kind of soaked it up a little bit and enjoyed it for sure.’’
Calm. Soaked it up. Enjoyed. The Dodgers desperately need all of that in their bullpen.
His World Series was not an anomaly. In three series this October, he allowed one run in 11 1/3 innings. He didn’t allow a run in the previous postseason. Or the one before that.
In all, as a reliever in the biggest moments on baseball’s biggest stage, Kelly has allowed three runs in 25 1/3 innings for a 1.07 ERA.
He is also supposedly really good in the clubhouse, which is fortuitous, because it appears that clubhouse is going to be changing. Judging from the buzz, Friedman and his bunch are striving to make more celebrated moves.
Yasiel Puig is gone if they can find somebody who will take him, which is apparently and understandably an increasingly difficult task. For you Dodgers fans who think I’ve judged him unfairly, did you hear what the Washington Nationals were going to do with Puig had they acquired him for Bryce Harper last August in a proposed trade? Yeah, they were going to waive him.
Matt Kemp and Joc Pederson could also be gone, maybe Alex Wood, too, the Dodgers using their assets to acquire or make room for some of their needs.
They need a catcher because Yasmani Grandal has left. They need a starting pitcher because Rich Hill will be 39 and Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu are injury prone.
And oh yeah, of course, they could use Harper, who would obviously be a terrific upgrade, but the Dodgers’ winter should not be judged by whether they’re able to sign him. This is a team that can win the National League West right now. While Harper would be huge, this is a team that needs several relevant pieces more than one flashy headliner.