By Brad Fauber
NEW MARKET -- Pitching at the collegiate level likely didn't seem like a real possibility for Garrett Kelly just a few years ago.
Kelly, who was recruited as a catcher by Wake Forest University coming out of high school, had logged very few innings on the mound during his prep baseball career at Edison High School in Fresno, California. But with the Demon Deacons hurting for pitching help entering Kelly's sophomore season this past spring, the Wake Forest coaching staff decided to experiment with Kelly on the mound.
"After talking with my coaches and whatnot we felt like this was probably the best for me. I've taken a liking to it and I've gotten more comfortable," Kelly, who is playing this summer for the New Market Rebels in the Valley Baseball League, said last Thursday. "I've still got a lot to learn, don't get me wrong. Pitching is not easy, but it's probably something that's best for me and my future."
Kelly, who still handled some of the catching duties for Wake Forest this past spring, worked mainly out of the bullpen during the 2014 season, although he did make one start on the mound for the Demon Deacons -- a disastrous outing against Duke on April 26 in which he allowed four runs and didn't make it out of the first inning.
But the plan for the Wake Forest coaching staff is to develop Kelly into a starting pitcher, and that has been the focus of the right-hander's stint in the Valley League this summer.
Kelly has made five starts for New Market so far, and he said he's been using the chance to face hitters using wooden bats as an opportunity to sharpen his mechanics and develop a feel for his new role.
"This is a situation -- especially for me because this is the first glimpse I've really had of just focusing on pitching -- I've got to learn on the bump and not be afraid to throw my fastball inside or somewhere, because these bats do break and the sweet spots are a lot smaller," Kelly said. "It's a good environment to learn how to pitch and to experiment with some stuff that I wouldn't be able to experiment with at school in the middle of the season where everything is pressure packed. Not saying you don't want to win here, but you do have that opportunity to learn, which is kind of nice."
Kelly has essentially been learning how to be a starting pitcher on the fly this summer, and he's looked good doing it.
The right-hander is currently 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA in his five starts with the Rebels, and his .195 batting average against ranks fourth best among all qualified pitchers in the Valley League this summer.
New Market manager C.J. Rhodes said Kelly -- a power pitcher whose fastball tops out around 93 miles per hour -- has used each start to strengthen his mechanics as he also toys with the grips of certain pitches while learning how to take velocity off when he needs to. It's that constant fine-tuning that has made Kelly's success so interesting to watch, Rhodes said.
"It's all very raw and that's the thing that's been exciting, to see him be able to make due with it and be able to work with it here this summer," said Rhodes, who has given Kelly a long leash help him work on his pitching development this summer.
"Every start he has ... is a year's worth of somebody pitching. He literally has to, within those starts, work with this and work with that, and learn how to deal with this, learn how to manage that. He's pitched before but it's still on the fast track to some degree about really being able to catch up with the speed of the college game as a front-end starter."
Kelly has sometimes struggled to get ahead of hitters this summer, which has led to a high walk total (16 in 36 innings pitched), and his strikeout total (22) isn't exactly where Kelly hopes it will be when he's back on the mound for Wake Forest next spring. But he has still managed to eat up a lot of innings on the mound for the Rebels.
Kelly is coming off his worst start of the Valley League season in New Market's win last Thursday, when he allowed six runs (five earned) on six hits over six innings against Front Royal. But prior to that, Kelly had gone at least seven innings in his previous three starts and allowed just five earned runs over 24 innings during that span.
His 36 innings pitched are tied for the most in the Valley League so far this season.
"I like to stay in and go as many innings as I can. It's a testament to coach [Rhodes] for letting me do that, letting me learn," said Kelly, who was one of six Rebels to be named to Sunday's VBL All-Star Game. "A lot of people would be kind of iffy about letting a kid who's learning to pitch go 90, 100, 105 pitches. I use it as a learning experience, how my body reacts when I'm tired and stuff like that. It's been really helpful."
Learning a new position on the diamond isn't the only big transition that Kelly has embraced over the last few years -- the move from California to the East Coast was a whole new experience as well.
"I really wanted to get away from California, believe it or not. I wanted to experience something else and have a different feel. You can always go back home, but I've really enjoyed it so far," Kelly said.
"I'm very happy with the [Valley League]. I think there's great competition up and down. I love the area. I love the town. The people of New Market have been very good to me. ... The environment's great. I wish it didn't rain as much, but I'm definitely enjoying it. It's a beautiful area and I'm very happy with the experience so far."
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org