World Series winner Joe Kelly unwinds during his return to UCR.
By Omar Shamout
UCR knows a thing or two about producing World Series-winning relief pitchers. Just ask the Highlanders’ head baseball coach, Troy Percival ’91, who won the World Series in 2002 as a closer for the Anaheim Angels. Joining Percival in that esteemed club last October was Joe Kelly, who played for the Highlanders from 2007–09 and won the World Series as a reliever with the Boston Red Sox last season. Kelly dominated the postseason, pitching 11 innings with 13 strikeouts. In the World Series alone, he pitched in all five games, striking out 10 batters and earning the win in Game 4 against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But now, Kelly is sporting Dodger blue after signing with L.A. as a free agent in December. In February, he returned to campus for an Associated Students Programming Board event called “Around the Mound with Joe Kelly.”
UCR is special to Kelly for many reasons, though perhaps most important is that it’s where he met his wife, Ashley Kelly ’10, who played soccer for the Highlanders. Below is an edited version of the discussion, in which Joe talked about growing up in the Inland Empire, switching positions at UCR, and why pitching in the World Series felt like playing the video game “Fortnite.”
On joining the Dodgers:
It feels great. Me and my wife, we live in the Inland Empire. To be able to live at home instead of packing everything up for nine months, now we get to stay at our house, and I’m fortunate to play on a very good Dodger baseball team. It’s a very talented group of guys. I like to win. Being on a losing team is not fun, and the Dodgers are one of those teams that want to win year in and year out.
On coming to UCR:
It was one of the three schools that would let me play baseball. I’m not the biggest of human beings and coming out of high school I was even smaller. Talentwise, I was there, but I was too small or too thin, so not many schools gave me an opportunity. I grew up in Corona, went to Corona High, and it was only 20 minutes away. My family could watch every game. At that time in the Big West, the team was loaded. My freshman year here was the first year we had won the Big West in I don’t know how long.
On becoming a pitcher:
I came here as an outfielder. One of our pitchers got hurt, and I was messing around one day throwing to people in the outfield. Our pitching coach said I had a great arm. He had me pitch off the mound. It was pretty good, and he was like, “Dang, can you do it again?” I did, and he said, “Hold on, I’ll be right back.” He came back with a radar gun. I threw it, and he said it was 94 mph. He said, “Do it again.” I threw it 95 mph, and he was like, “…You don’t need a bat anymore.” It was a bittersweet feeling at the time. I hated him for a solid couple of months and loved him after that.
On playing minor-league baseball:
It was a lot of bed bugs and 12-hour bus rides. No joke, I have been in beds where I can see there are blood stains. It’s super tough. No matter what you do, there is always going to be someone trying to take your job. It’s hard to put on a positive attitude when everyone is working toward the same job. Everything we had here at UCR was better than my first couple seasons of minor-league baseball. Travel, food, equipment was better. All that makes everything worth it if you make it to the big leagues.
On his favorite moment at UCR:
On the field, it was the first year — UC Irvine in the last week. We had a lead in the Big West, and all we had to do was not get swept, not lose three games in a row. We were about to lose the Big West if we lost. At the time, I didn’t know how big it was. I threw the final pitch to beat Irvine and that was probably my favorite baseball moment.
On being back at UCR:
I love this school. I met my wife here. I don’t get back as much as I would want because life is busy, but I have so many great memories here. I love still being a part of the Inland Empire. Last week, I came back and helped some guys with some pitching stuff, so I like teaching in that manner. Eventually, I want to graduate.
On the pressure of being a relief pitcher:
It’s way easier being a starter because when I come in and I give up the runs they don’t go on my stats — no, I’m joking. I love it because there’s nothing planned. It’s so random, especially in the playoffs. I perform better with less time to think. If I start getting in my head, it’s worse, so getting thrown in with bases loaded without any time to warm up, it’s exactly what I was made for. I guess I had more pressure and anxiety when I had four days of doing nothing and then pitching the fifth day and game planning.
On Boston’s success last season:
We had a talented team obviously, but it goes beyond that. There was accountability. On a professional sports level, it’s hard to make everyone play as hard as you want them to play. It’s hard getting everyone pulling in the same direction when you’re at that level. (Last) year was different. When someone makes a bad play, when guys aren’t pulling in the right direction, it’s easy to be like, so what? We lost. We didn’t need team meetings. We never got to that moment, and I think that was probably the step that we needed and were missing the years before. We wanted it a little bit more than every team, and we didn’t have to be told that. We wanted it for each other.
On playing in the World Series:
The World Series was one of the most peaceful times in my sporting life. It’s weird to say, but it was like playing “Fortnite” with your buddies or basketball at the rec. It had that feeling of passion and fun. I was so close to my teammates, and at the biggest moment, for some reason, it just clicked. We played freely without understanding how big of a stage it was. The series before I felt the pressure. But in the World Series it was like a sandlot game, and you could see it on all our faces. I was just enjoying the moment. I think that was my favorite part.