How Arizona native Merrill Kelly’s long, winding path led him to pitching for hometown team in World Series

After overcoming obstacles and taking the road less traveled throughout his career, Scottsdale native Merrill Kelly is set to pitch for his hometown Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2023 World Series. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Merrill Kelly was pitching with the Yavapai Roughriders, electing for more experience at the community college level rather than going to the minor leagues. Little did he know, two coaches were talking about Kelly’s unique ability to deal changeups and unhittable curves. One of those coaches happened to be former San Francisco Giants scout Jack Uhey.

“(Uhey) said, ‘Look I know you might be full or whatever, but this kid can spin a breaking ball, and he just has a feel for pitching. ‘He’s right from your backyard, he went to Yavapai,’” said Pat Murphy, who coached ASU baseball at the time.

“Sure enough, the next day we did our research and called (Kelly) up and offered him a pretty significant scholarship. He came to visit on campus not too long after that, and we signed him to the deal.”

From Kelly’s discovery two hours north of his Scottdale hometown to his emergence as a key starter on the Arizona Diamondbacks pitching staff, the Desert Mountain alum is set to impress even more baseball enthusiasts around the country on the World Series stage. Facing the Texas Rangers, Kelly will take the ball in Game 2 Saturday on the road at Globe Life Field.

“Unbelievable. It is unbelievable,” said Cheryl Kelly, his mother who has been his biggest support throughout his career. “I am just thrilled for him. You know he always seems to be the pitcher that does really well and people say, ‘He did good, but this other guy did really well.’

“He’s not flashy, he doesn’t throw 100 miles per hour, but his ball moves all over the place and he can put it where he wants it. That’s pitching to me.”

Cheryl says there will be 10 family members making the trip to Arlington, Texas, to watch Merrill pitch. The 10 family members include two of his grandparents, who have never seen him pitch in person before.

“They will drive over from Beaumont,” Cheryl said. “They are amazing. We call them the Duracell bunnies.”

Cheryl says this milestone will finalize everything Merrill, 35, has wanted in his career. He ascended to play Division I baseball for ASU, pitched in the College World Series and played in the World Baseball Classic for the United States in 2023.

Now, Kelly is a key reason why the Diamondbacks are competing in their first World Series in 22 years behind a must-win Game 6 performance with the Diamondbacks trailing 3-2 against the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series. No team had defeated the Phillies at home during the 2023 postseason, with Philadelphia’s rowdy crowd creating harsh playing conditions for opposing players.

That didn’t affect Kelly and the Diamondbacks under the pressure of Monday’s Phillies-heavy crowd at Citizens Bank Park.

Kelly surrendered one run over five innings, while striking out eight Philadelphia hitters. His pitching performance set up a win-or-go-home Game 7 situation for both teams, which the Diamondbacks won 4-2.

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Kelly’s path to pitching in the World Series for his hometown team was not a straight line. He faced ups and downs and a few zigzags before the Diamondbacks took a chance on him.

Following in the footsteps of his older brother Reid, who was drafted by the Houston Astros in 2005, Kelly played baseball at Desert Mountain High School. Initially, Kelly was a position player for the Wolves. Former Desert Mountain baseball coach Bryan Rice said Kelly’s senior year is when he truly took off as a pitcher.

“Him and a couple of his teammates pitching-wise took us over the top and led us that way,” Rice said. “He started really taking off and realized he was going to pitch, and his senior year was really impressive.”

After Kelly’s career finished at Desert Mountain in 2007, he decided to forgo his 37th-round draft selection with the Baltimore Orioles to play with Yavapai College — a community college in Prescott.

Kelly only played one season at Arizona State, but he made the most of his time pitching with the Sun Devils. He helped lead ASU to a 47-8 record, won the PAC-10 Championship and secured a trip to the College Baseball World Series — the program’s most recent trip to Omaha, Nebraska.

“He threw our elimination game in the College World Series and pitched really well,” former Arizona State baseball coach Tim Esmay said. “(He) never wavered from that game. That was kind of a weird deal that year. We got rained out, we had to play at 7 a.m. All those things that happened, and he never wavered.”

Kelly’s performance earned him an eighth-round selection by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2010 MLB draft.

His uphill journey to the big leagues continued in the Rays’ farm system, where he spent time from 2010-2014. Kelly made multiple dominant stints with the Triple-A Durham Bulls, but was eventually put in the team’s bullpen.

Despite the team overlooking his abilities, Kelly continued to work and hone his craft.

“A lot of people would’ve just gotten discouraged and quit and stayed in the minor leagues,” Cheryl said. “Not Merrill. Merrill’s gonna try something different. He’s gonna push further. He’s been tenacious in this journey.”

Kelly did try something different. He packed his bags and moved halfway across the world to pitch for the SK Wyverns of the South Korean KBO League. Kelly played for the Wyverns from 2015-2018, where he pitched in 119 games.

Following his stellar play in South Korea, the Diamondbacks signed him to a two-year major league deal on Dec. 4, 2018. Kelly made his major league debut with his hometown team on April 1, 2019, against the San Diego Padres at 30 years old. Since then, Kelly has been an important cog in the team’s rise to success.

Everyone who has watched him grow up and play is proud of Kelly’s journey to the big leagues.

“It is a wonderful thing for a mom to see your kid successful and living his dream,” Kelly said. “For any mom, when you watch your kid grow up and make great decisions and become fine young men, I don’t know what more I could ask. He is my heart, and I love him dearly. I am so proud of him.”

Tyler Bednar(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Tyler Bednar expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Bednar has interned with the Miracle League of Arizona in Scottsdale.