Former Highlanders pitcher Joe Kelly stays true to his roots throughout his time in major league baseball

Thomas Holguin/HIGHLANDER
Although several UCR intercollegiate teams are relatively new to competing at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I level, several former Highlanders have gone on to become big names in the sports industry. This week, The Highlander is highlighting current Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly, who attended UCR in 2007.

The UCR Baseball Complex is adorned with framed baseball jerseys of players who have made it into the major leagues, but one player that has continually stood out is Kelly, who is currently pitching for the Dodgers. Kelly stepped foot on campus in 2007, as a fresh-faced 19-year-old outfielder from Corona High School. In a 2019 Q&A with the Associated Student Program Board (ASPB), Kelly stated that he decided to attend UCR because it was “one of the three schools that would let me play baseball.” UCR’s interest in his talent, coupled with the location and the team’s generous budget, made it an easy decision for the future Major League Baseball player. Kelly’s time at UCR changed the trajectory of his career — it was during his time on the Riverside field that Kelly really began to develop his skills as a pitcher. During that same ASPB event, the player recalled how pitching coach Andrew Checketts forced him to replace their injured pitcher. Kelly said that although he was initially displeased by the change, he “loved him after that.”

In 2007, he was named Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year and First Team All-Conference. He also played for the USA National Team that summer. Kelly has stated that it was during his freshman year that he had his favorite moment at UCR. The Highlanders held a lead in the Big West, and Kelly threw a final pitch against their rival, UC Irvine, that propelled them forward in the conference. The Highlanders were crowned Big West Champions that May — the first time the team had received a Big West title and the second time ever the Highlanders had made it into the NCAA Tournament since the school had gone D-1 five years prior. In 2007 and 2008, he led the Highlanders with six saves. Kelly set a record with a total 24 career saves during his three seasons with the Highlanders and was named All-American.

He was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the third round of the 2009 Major League Baseball draft. In 2012, Kelly was recruited in the major leagues and made his debut in June; that year, he appeared in 24 games, with a 3.53 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 107 innings pitched. He acquired his first run batted in and major league hit against the Miami Marlins and put the Cardinals up 8-6, which allowed them the advantage they needed to win.

In 2014, Kelly was traded to the Boston Red Sox, with which he won the AL Cy Young Award. During 2018, Kelly was the winning relief pitcher of Game 4 of the World Series; that same year, Kelly signed a $27 million contract with the team he had just defeated, the Dodgers. Kelly has said that he is “fortunate to play on a very good Dodgers baseball team… I like to win… and the Dodgers are one of those teams that want to win year in and year out.” He appeared in 12 games before the coronavirus pandemic shortened the 2020 season.

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