Kelly improves 'rhythm and timing' in start

Right-hander makes strong case for rotation spot with 4 shutout innings vs. Pirates

Kelly improves 'rhythm and timing' in start

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Early in camp, manager John Farrell said right-hander Joe Kelly was the leading candidate to take the fifth spot in the rotation, ahead of knuckleballer Steven Wright and left-handers Henry Owens and Brian Johnson.

While that dynamic has shifted a degree, as projected fourth starter Eduardo Rodriguez has not pitched from a mound since suffering a subluxation of his right knee on Feb. 27, Kelly has done nothing to lower his status among that group.

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In his third Grapefruit League outing, Kelly went four scoreless innings, giving up three hits and a walk with three strikeouts in the Red Sox's 3-1 loss to the Pirates on Monday. Facing 17 batters, he threw 63 pitches, 40 for strikes.

"It felt, obviously, better than I had the previous two times," Kelly said. "Other than results, I wasn't focused on that -- I was focused on getting my rhythm and timing back. The first two times I went out there, I was a little bit slow, windup was way too slow, stretch was way too slow. So it's something I worked on in between starts, just to speed up the tempo.

"Ultimately, I threw the ball with more consistency where I wanted to throw it. I think I did a really good job from the stretch, with varying times and commanding the strike zone with pitches I need to by being a little bit quicker to the plate."

Farrell was satisfied with Kelly's performance.

"Improved," Farrell said. "I thought he did a better job with the rhythm inside his delivery, after making the adjustment in the final inning last outing and carried it through today. I thought he threw a number of quality fastballs that he just missed being off the plate. He made a couple of big pitches with guys in scoring position."

Kelly ended his third and fourth innings with strikeouts on sliders, getting Gregory Polanco swinging in the third and Gift Ngoepe looking in the fourth.

"Early in camp, you want to establish your fastball. That's a primary goal," Farrell said. "But the ability to have your secondary pitches, when called upon, it was good to see him use that. It kind of tells you he's thinking the situation and executing to it."

It would be a tremendous boon to the Red Sox if Kelly returns to the form he had in the second half of last season.

In 2015, his first full season with the Red Sox, he made 25 starts, going 10-6 with a 4.82 ERA. But he was sent to Triple-A Pawtucket on June 25 after making 14 starts, posting a record of 2-5 and a 5.67 ERA, with the Red Sox going 5-9 in those games. After he was recalled on July 22, he went 8-1 with a 3.77 ERA in 11 starts.

He won eight consecutive starts from Aug. 1 to Sept. 9, the longest streak by a Red Sox pitcher since Pedro Martinez had wins in nine straight starts in 1999.

Worth noting
• Johnson left the game with a sprained left big toe, and a fluoroscan was performed on the injury.

"There's not any evidence of anything other than tendon involvement," Farrell said.

Johnson will be checked again on Tuesday.

• Farrell said on Monday that Rodriguez is getting closer to a bullpen session, which will hopefully be in the coming days.

• Right-hander Carson Smith has been dealing with back spasms. He threw a bullpen session on Thursday, but Farrell said Smith would need to throw from a mound at least once more before getting into a game. He has not pitched in a game since March 6.

Maureen Mullen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.