St. LOUIS-The one inning of relief was effective, though quite unremarkable. Yet, that perfect top of the sixth thrown by Red Sox prospect Casey Kelly for the United States team in its 7-5 loss to the World on a waterlogged Sunday afternoon at the All-Star Futures Game at Busch Stadium might be one to remember. After all, it could conceivably be the last professional inning the 19-year-old ever pitches.
That’s because Kelly will report on Tuesday morning to the Red Sox’s spring training base in Fort Myers, Florida to begin work on making one of the most unique transitions in recent baseball memory. After making a combined 17 starts and pitching 95 effective innings for the full-season Greenville and Salem farm clubs in A-ball this season, Kelly will finish out the minor league season as a shortstop.
Kelly’s first step once Red Sox officials feel he is up to speed will be to start playing games for Rookie-level Fort Myers in the Gulf Coast League. If he does well there, he will be promoted to short-season Single-A Lowell in the New York-Penn League. Though it could be a tight squeeze from a timing standpoint with minor league regular seasons ending on or around Labor Day, Kelly could possibly finish the year back at Greenville or Salem.
Switching pitchers to hitters or hitters to pitchers is far from unprecedented. In fact, many players have made the transition at the minor league level in order to revive a stalling career. However, except in the case of a serious arm injury or a total loss of control like the Cardinals‘ Rick Ankiel, it is unprecedented for a talented pitcher who has enjoyed as much success as Kelly to make the switch. As a result, it might seems nonsensical to consider such a maneuver. Yet it is part of the deal that Kelly and the Red Sox struck last year when he was their first-round draft pick following a successful two-sport career at Sarasota (Fla.) High School. In order to get Kelly to forgo a football scholarship to play quarterback for the University of Tennessee, the Red Sox not only gave him a $3 million signing bonus spread over five years, they agreed to allow him to play shortstop last season, and then try to this unique plan. Last year, he hit just .173/.229/.255 in 109 plate appearance for Fort Myers, but jumped those numbers to .344/.344/.563 in 32 trips to the plate after a promotion to Lowell.
“It’s something I really wanted to do,” Kelly said of playing shortstop. “The Red Sox wanted to draft me strictly as a pitcher and I respect that, but I look at pitching like I did playing quarterback. It’s a lot of fun, and I enjoy the challenge of it. The part I didn’t like about being a quarterback, though, was waiting all week just to play one game. It’s the same with being pitcher. I hate having to wait four days between starts before getting the chance to pitch again. I like to be out there every day. I like to be in the middle of the action.”
Kelly began the season by going 6-1 with a 1.12 ERA in nine starts at Single-A Greenville for a translated DERA of 4.60. That earned him a promotion to High-A Salem, where he was a respectable 1-4 with a 3.09 ERA in eight starts with a 5.85 DERA despite being one of the youngest players in the Carolina League. Kelly’s quick ascent up the organizations ladder seems to confirm the organization’s view that Kelly has a bright future as a pitcher. He won’t necessarily disagree, but feels he must scratch the position-player itch. That is why he would take batting practice with the rest of the teammates in each of the first two days after each start this season before then concentrating fully on pitching before his next rotation turn.
“It’s still fun to swing the bat,” Kelly said. “What I would really love to do is be both a pitcher and a shortstop, just like I did in high school. On days I’m not pitching, I can play in the field. Everyone does in high school.”
Kelly is a bright young man, though, and he fully understands that being a two-way player at the professional level is an entire different thing than doing so at the prep level. “I want to give a try,” Kelly said. “I’m serious about it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Nobody that I know of has ever tried it before in professional baseball. I guess we’ll find out. It’s uncharted waters.”
Having a rain delay that ran four hours and nine minutes was also a case of wading into uncharted waters, but that is what Major League Baseball did in the middle of the first inning to make sure this seven-inning game and the celebrity softball game that followed were played. Paid attendance was 36,311, and you didn’t need to pass a course in advanced economics to understand that MLB would have had to refund a lot of money to a lot of people if the game was postponed, since there was no make-up date built into the schedule.
“It was a long time to wait but it wasn’t so bad,” said US second baseman Eric Young Jr. of the Rockies organization. “A lot of us had never met each other before today, so it gave us a lot of time to talk to get to know each other. It was time well-spent. Under normal circumstances, waiting this long would have driven you crazy but this was a unique experience.”
The World rallied with four runs in the top of the seventh inning to overcome a 5-3 deficit against losing pitcher Travis Reckling of the Angels. Brett Lawrie of the Brewers led off with a double and went to third on a single by Starlin Castro of the Cubs. Lawrie then raced home on Reckling’s wild pitch, making it a one-run game, while Castro moved up to second. One out later, Brewers shortstop wunderkind Alcides Escobar hit an infield single that shortstop Danny Espinoza of the Nationals deflected toward second baseman Jemile Weeks to keep the ball in the infield. The intent was to make sure Escobar held third. However, Weeks then threw wildly to home, enabling Escobar to score the tying run.
At that point Pirates prospect Brad Lincoln, the last available US pitcher, was summoned from the bullpen. Pinch-hitter Rene Tosoni greeted him with the game-winning double down the right-field line, and then White Sox prospect/Cuban slugger Dayan Viciedo doubled in an insurance run. J.C. Sulbaran of the Reds pitched a scoreless bottom of the seventh for the save, though not without a harrowing moment as he walked consecutive batters with two outs before Weeks hit a game-ending fly out to just in front of the warning track in center.
Tosoni’s pinch-hit enabled him to garner Most Valuable Players honors on a day when there were other standout performances. Young hit a solo homer, and Astros catching prospect Jason Castro belted a three-run shot for the US, while Desmond Jennings of the Rays stole three bases. Escobar was 2-for-4 for the World, making him the only player on either side with multiple hits, while teammate Tyson Gillies of the Mariners swiped two bags. The Astros’ Chia-Jen Lo got the win with one scoreless inning of relief.
It was a little hard for Tosoni, a Canadian drafted in the 34th round by the Twins in 2005, to believe he was the MVP. He is having a solid year at Double-A New Britain, hitting .278/.386/.480 with 10 home runs and a .255 translated EqA in 324 plate appearances. However, there were many players with better pedigrees playing this stage. “It’s crazy because I never expected to even be here and was pretty shocked when I was told I was picked,” Tosoni said. “I couldn’t have predicted this.”
Yet on a strange day that featured a pitcher saying farewell to the mound for at least this season, and a rain delay that lasted nearly an entire afternoon, it was only fitting that a no-name like Tosoni would be the hero.