Zack Kelly knew something wasn’t right as soon as the baseball left his hand.
As the pain started to shoot through his elbow, hundreds of thoughts were shooting through his mind — and at that point, not too many were good thoughts.
Photos that circulated from that day corroborated his feelings. The free agent pitcher from Daleville, who had clawed his way from Division II college baseball to four seasons of minor league baseball with three different organizations, had secured a major-league roster spot with the Boston Red Sox just a couple of weeks before that mid-April Wednesday night in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“Something didn’t feel right,” said Kelly, who attended and played baseball for Lord Botetourt High School. “I kind of felt something out of the ordinary for the better part of that outing. It felt like every time I went to throw, my elbow was kind of stretching apart.
“I was just trying to get through the inning. Then finally on that last pitch, I ended up hitting [Rays infielder Yaddy Diaz] and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep throwing.”
Kelly talked about that game with the Tampa Bay Rays earlier this week. Any sadness or anxiety that he was experiencing on April 12 has passed and the attitude that has helped him get this far is back in place.
The news from the Red Sox medical staff was not great, but Kelly knows it could have been a lot worse.
At some time in early May, Kelly, 28, will head to Alabama to have a nerve in his pitching elbow reattached. The procedure requires about four months of rehabilitation before a patient is ready to return to the field.
“All things considered, it’s not as bad as I thought it could be when I first went down,” he said.
He now looks at his current injury as just another chapter of his baseball story — one that still has plenty of chapters ahead.
Prior to his third season in the L.A. Angels’ minor league system, Kelly had felt something odd with the elbow in his pitching arm. The diagnosis was that he tore his ulnar collateral ligament, which usually leads to what’s known as Tommy John surgery.
From his high school days at Lord Botetourt in Daleville, through his college career, which started at Concord University in West Virginia and then continued at Newberry College in South Carolina, Kelly had avoided injuries as he built a promising resume as a right-handed pitcher.
He was not drafted following his senior year in 2017, but did agree to sign with the Oakland Athletics and join the club’s rookie-league team in Arizona. The invitation came with a $500 signing bonus.
The A’s released him after spring training in 2018, but he quickly moved on to the Angels, where he spent the next two seasons in their system.
The Angels released him but were still on the hook to get Kelly’s injury repaired. All this was happening in the spring of 2020 — just before the world was going to be shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A second opinion provided Kelly with a better-sounding option. He was a prime candidate to have his UCL reattached — a procedure that has a shorter recovery time. Kelly said the nerve he now has to have reattached had to be moved during his UCL surgery, so what happened is a byproduct of the first procedure.
During isolation, Kelly spent the time rehabbing and contemplating what would come next. COVID restrictions where he and his wife, Brittany, were living in South Carolina were not as severe as some other states, but certain precautions had to be taken.
He says now he also benefited from some of the prohibitions.
Other than the shortened and fan-less Major League season, professional baseball went on a season-long hiatus as Kelly recovered. And in addition to the lost 2020 season, the league’s owners decided along the way that the number of leagues and teams in the minor leagues would be reduced. Less teams means less roster spots.
“There were definitely some challenges to it,” Kelly said. “You had to know where you were allowed to go and not go. But it was probably most beneficial that I didn’t miss any games. Nobody got any more game experience.”
Sport rehab is not the most enjoyable experience for many professional athletes. Kelly said he enjoyed it. He’s approaching it this time in the same manner.
“I’m excited about it,” he said. “When I had my [previous surgery], I was able to focus just on my body, getting stronger, more flexible and putting my body into a better condition moving forward.
“I took a huge stride as a pitcher in the weight room and training room [in 2020]. I came back so much stronger. I’d much rather be pitching and being with the team, but I’m trying to look at it as a positive.”
There is one big difference for Kelly as he begins this rehab stint. Unlike his free-agent status in 2020, the Red Sox are sticking by their pitcher – and for good reason.
As Kelly’s rehab progressed, he worked on finding a new agent. In the interim, he was representing himself — contacting scouts who might be looking for players like him. He eventually hooked up with a New York City-based agent John Carcione, who said he only needed to watch a few videos of Kelly in action before he was ready to join forces.
“In terms of pitching, his stuff, his changeup — everything — he was nasty,” Carcione said. “So I gave him a call back. … We just clicked from there on out.”
Shortly after that, Kelly was signed by the Red Sox and was ready to resume his career.
During his two minor league seasons in Boston’s farm system, Kelly was a regular on its top-prospects list. He spent the first half of 2021 with Double-A Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs, where he had a 3-1 record, with 40 strikeouts, five saves and a 1.69 ERA in 21 appearances. That was good enough to earn a mid-year promotion to Triple-A Worcester. He appeared mostly in middle relief in 15 games, going 1-0 with 29 strikeouts and 2.89 ERA while surrendering just six walks.
In 2022, Kelly continued to excel. He appeared in 44 games for the WooSox, had a 6-3 record with three saves and struck out 72 batters – his best total since he had struck out 83 in Double-A Mobile in 2019, where the Angels affiliate used him primarily as a starter.
All that was left at that point was to see if the Red Sox wanted to see what Kelly could do in the Majors. The 2022 season was not great for the Red Sox. The roster was in a constant flux due to injuries and in-season trades and they spent much of the season in the lower half of the American League East Division. By August, Carcione said it was obvious that Kelly deserved a chance to see what he could contribute.
“We were kind of just waiting for it to happen,” Carcione said. “It was getting close to the end of the year, and I was kind of being a little bit of a pest toward the team. I was asking ‘what are we waiting on?’”
Carcione said on Aug. 29 of last year – the agent’s birthday – Kelly called to tell him the wait was over.
“It was a long time coming,” Carcione said. “He had two great seasons [in the minors] and it was great when he got moved up to Triple-A. But him finally getting that call was unbelievable. …. It just goes to show that he’s got the stuff.”
Kelly’s debut came one night later on the road against the Minnesota Twins. He came in for the sixth inning and struck out two batters while giving up a hit in a 4-2 loss. In the following game, Kelly needed just nine pitches to get out of a perfect seventh inning, striking out one along the way.
He appeared in 13 games during his time in Boston that season, finishing with a 3.95 ERA with 14 hits, 11 strikeouts and 4 walks.
It was also during his first month in the majors that Brittany gave birth to their son Kayden.
This past spring Kelly pitched well enough to hold onto his roster spot, which meant he began the 2023 season with his first major league contract – the league minimum this season is $720,000. That’s a long way from the $500 that came with his first pro deal.
“The one thing about Zack is that it’s never been about the money.” Carcione said. “I think now that he’s getting compensated pretty well, that just shows that he belonged there the whole time.”
In the couple of weeks that have passed since Kelly’s injury, Carcione said he has been impressed with how much attention his client has received from the Red Sox. He said they have heard from nearly every person on the coaching staff and front office, and the medical team will be overseeing Kelly’s recovery at their spring training facility in Fort Myers, Florida.
“The Red Sox are world-class,” Carcione said. “They want Zack to recover and be available as soon as he can. We hope he can get back by the last month of the season.”
Although his wife and son had relocated with him to the Boston area, Kelly said one bright spot about being injured right now is that while he rehabs, he will have plenty of time to spend with Kayden, who at 7 months old is always ready for the next adventure.
“Once he was able to move, he can’t sit still,” Kelly said. “He always wants what he can’t have, so we’re busy.”
Kelly said he hopes his post-op stay in Florida is not too long. He is excited to get back to Boston so he continues his recovery with the Red Sox medical team and gets back with his teammates.
“If you had told me when I graduated high school in 2013 that I’d still be playing baseball 10 years later, I probably would have laughed at you,” Kelly said. “I’m definitely fortunate to still be playing. … To get to go to Fenway Park to go to work every day is something that I would have never dreamed of in a million years.”