Diamondbacks, with a journeyman outdueling an ace, send NLCS to Game 7

PHILADELPHIA — Merrill Kelly did not plan to spend four of his best baseball years pitching in South Korea. He went there, like so many others, to prove he was good enough to pitch in the major leagues. He went there to prove the Tampa Bay Rays missed something by not promoting him when he was theirs to promote. He went there to prove everyone else was missing something, too.

But every morning, when the time difference meant MLB games were on television there, he would watch them, checking on friends — and checking, he admitted this past weekend, on what teams could use a right-handed starter with a mid-90s fastball and the guts to wait all those years for one more chance.

“There wasn’t a day during my time in Korea,” Kelly said, “that I didn’t think about being here.”

By here, Kelly meant he thought about being in the majors. He simply couldn’t have meant here, on the mound Monday at Citizens Bank Park, trying to help the 84-win Arizona Diamondbacks stave off elimination in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Almost no one, even the biggest Arizona optimists, could have expected the Diamondbacks to be here. And no one, with perhaps the exception of Kelly himself, would have bet on him to stand up to a high-decibel crowd and a high-powered lineup over five of the most important innings of his career. But Kelly did what no starter before him did this October, handing the Phillies their first home loss of the playoffs and forcing Game 7 with a 5-1 win.

Game 7 is Tuesday night. The winner goes to the World Series.

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“All part of the plan,” first baseman Christian Walker said afterward, and he did not mind when everyone who heard him laughed. Walker wore a hat that read “Everyone is someone” as he explained that just because no one expected the Diamondbacks to be here does not mean they do not deserve to be.

Kelly and the Diamondbacks might be the best example this postseason has to offer of everyone becoming someone when it matters most. No postseason team won fewer regular season games. No team looked more overmatched early in a series than Arizona did after a 10-0 loss here in Game 2. And no team had a one-two starting pitching punch quite like that of the Phillies, who were sending out co-ace Aaron Nola to end the series Monday night.

The only chance Arizona had was Kelly, a 35-year-old journeyman who pitched in South Korea from 2015 to 2018 before signing with the Diamondbacks. He lost to this same Phillies lineup in that Game 2 debacle. But on Monday night, insisting he did not change his game plan much, Kelly lasted five innings and 90 pitches, neither of which seems like the stuff of legend. But here, against this lineup, it certainly felt like it.

Kelly pitched carefully around Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper, both of whom he walked in the first inning before he walked Schwarber again in the second. But he dominated the rest of the Phillies, holding them to one run on three hits, striking out eight and never walking anyone he wished he hadn’t.

“Harper and Schwarber are both super locked in right now. They’re not missing too many mistakes,” Kelly said. “So I’m not too mad about putting them on base right now.”

Kelly was helped by the fact that the Phillies looked a little antsier than usual. He got 12 swings and misses with a six-pitch mix that improved as he went. By the time he faced Schwarber and Harper in the fifth, he struck out both.

But it was after that fifth inning when Kelly revealed the side of himself that teammates said explains how he got here in the first place.

As Kelly walked off the mound, with his team holding a 4-1 lead, Manager Torey Lovullo met him at the dugout steps with a handshake. Kelly was stunned but shook his hand anyway. He made his case to stay in the game, arguing that he had plenty left after getting through the heart of the Philadelphia order. He had not, he said later, even considered his night would be over.

“It’s what I expect from Merrill,” Lovullo said. “He is an unbelievable competitor — never wants to be taken out of a game until his tank is absolutely empty. He was making statements to me that told me that he was capable of going back out there, but I’ve got to be the parent in the room and make a tough decision.”

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The decision to hand a three-run lead to the bullpen was significant, and after the way Kelly had handled the Phillies, it was a risk. The Diamondbacks were lucky to be leading, at least in some ways. Nola had not lost a home start in the playoffs and entered Game 6 with a 0.96 ERA in three postseason starts, with 19 strikeouts and two walks in 18⅔ innings. But he wasn’t the same Monday.

Nola surrendered back-to-back homers in the second inning — the first to Tommy Pham, who had not hit much at all before that. Lovullo put Pham back in the lineup for Game 6 after sitting him for Game 5 — in part because of matchups, in part because Pham was 1 for his past 17.

“Tommy Pham is Tommy Pham, right?” Lovullo asked before the game, and indeed, when Pham hit his homer, Lovullo’s logic appeared sound. Three pitches after Pham homered, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. did the same. The Diamondbacks had found themselves with a rare lead here.

Lovullo has been candid about his players’ chances in this series, willing to speak freely about their failures, insistent that there is something they know to be “Diamondback baseball” and that, when they play it, they are a credible threat to anyone despite their regular season record. And the manager was clear Monday afternoon about his team’s intentions for what some might have considered a doomed trip here.

“We didn’t come cross-country to get our asses kicked,” he said, and his players seemed to agree. After Pham and Gurriel homered, and after Evan Longoria added an RBI double in that inning to make it 3-0 — when Citizens Bank Park was almost quiet — they seemed to have proved his point.

“When our backs are against the wall, it brings the best out of us,” Pham said. “Guys tend to turn up the focus. It gives us a little edge. So maybe that’s what we needed.”

While not all of the defining characteristics of “Diamondback baseball” are immediately obvious, one staple is stealing bases. Arizona was second in the NL in steals during the regular season. Its rookie sensation, Corbin Carroll, finished second in the NL with 54 steals. But in the first five games of the NLCS, the Diamondbacks had stolen just one base.

In the seventh inning Monday, with a three-run lead, Arizona took off again. Geraldo Perdomo singled, stole second and scored on Ketel Marte’s single. Marte then stole second, too. By game’s end, the Diamondbacks had stolen four bases.

“It was very close to a Diamondback type of a baseball game,” Lovullo said.

Arizona has one more chance to show the Phillies what a Diamondback type of a baseball game looks like. That Arizona has a chance in Game 7 of the NLCS — that the Diamondbacks are a win away from the World Series, for goodness’ sake — is thanks in large part to the fact that a guy who spent his late 20s in South Korea, hoping to make it back here when he still had his good stuff, did something that far more prominent pitchers could not: He faced the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, and he won.

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