Joe Kelly is one of the pitchers trying to win the open spot in the Cardinals starting rotation. UPI/Bill Greenblatt
By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – Officially, the competition between Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller in trying to win the fifth spot in the Cardinals’ starting rotation ends each day when they leave the team’s spring training complex.
In reality, however, that is when the serious competition really begins – when they get back to the three-bedroom house they are sharing this spring with teammate Michael Wacha, a four-minute walk from the beach.
Video games are the battlefield, and the two usually spend much of their free time each day trying to win the bragging rights for Call to Duty, Black Ops, Tiger Woods golf or multiple other games.
“I don’t think everyone plays video games like I do,” Kelly said. “I play them on a serious level. I think they just play for fun. I play for actual bragging rights.”
Kelly wears the professional style headset when he plays, and he and Miller actually keep stats and compare scores after going on-line to compete against other serious video gamers.
“Joe is kind of a nerd when it comes to the video games,” Miller said. “He is good, I will admit that, but he is not as good as me. We play for hours and it makes the time fly by. When you get good at it it’s a lot of fun.”
Kelly, 24, and Miller, 22, have been good friends since 2010. Each was drafted in 2009, Miller as the 19th overall pick in the first round out of a Texas high school, and Kelly 79 picks later, the Cardinals’ third-round selection from the University of California at Riverside. They became teammates, and roommates, at Class A Quad Cities and also roomed together in 2011 at Palm Beach and last year at Memphis before first Kelly, and then Miller, was promoted to the major leagues.
They already have decided that if both of them make the Cardinals’ roster, they will room together in St. Louis this summer in advance of each of their weddings next fall.
Miller’s wedding date is Nov. 16 and Kelly will be married a week later. Each will have a role in the other’s wedding.
As good of friends as they are, however, both Miller and Kelly realize that only one of them – or perhaps neither if Trevor Rosenthal is the choice – will occupy the fifth spot in the team’s starting rotation, the opening created by Chris Carpenter’s absence.
The other will either be asked to move to the bullpen, or perhaps be sent back to Triple A Memphis.
It would not be surprising if that situation put a strain on their friendship, but neither Miller or Kelly says that is the case.
“Baseball is over with when we leave the field,” Miller said. “We don’t talk about it. I don’t know if it is in the back of our heads or not, but we don’t talk about it.
“We are competing on the field, trying to win a spot and trying to make the team. Some of us are going to end up in the bullpen. My ultimate goal is to be in St. Louis, and it will be even better if I was starting up there. The biggest thing is trying to win the job, and if I don’t, then try to get that bullpen spot.”
Manager Mike Matheny has described the battle as an open competition, but he admits Kelly has an edge at this time because of the experience he gained a year ago, when he made 16 starts in the major leagues.
Miller, on the other hand, has been groomed for years to become a front-line starter and turned some heads with his performance on the final day of the regular season in 2012, when he allowed only one hit and struck out seven in six innings against the Reds in his to-date only major-league start.
“I am excited to watch them compete,” said Matheny, including Rosenthal in that group. “You throw athletes into a situation like this and put pressure on them, and usually that’s when they rise to the top. It’s going to be fun.
“Every day that goes by they are going to be evaluated, not just on their individual performance but what does it mean for the club. What makes our team better. They will get a chance to prove it to us.”
Kelly and Miller both know that is all they can ask. The rest is up to them.
“Mentally I’ve been planning for this since the off-season started,” Kelly said. “It’s something I look forward to, especially being how competitive I am in everything I do. I hate losing. I love the challenge; it’s something I have fun doing, especially battling against my friends.”
The fact that both are competing for a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation shows how far they have come from a year ago. Kelly had made only 11 starts at Double A and Miller was trying to pitch after a winter in which he thought he was doing the right thing by losing 20 pounds, but found out he had done exactly the wrong thing.
“I wasn’t mentally sound last year,” said Miller, who this off-season gained 20 pounds. “Right now I’m pretty much on a mission trying to do the right things and have a good spring.”
Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, like Matheny, is looking forward to watching the competition unfold over the next four weeks or so. Ideally, the team will pick a winner sometime in mid-March to allow enough time for him to be ready for the start of the regular season.
“They know what’s at stake. They know we are watching,” Lilliquist said.
Miller would love to see a scenario that keeps all three youngsters – himself, Kelly an Rosenthal – in St. Louis.
“I feel like I’m ready,” Miller said. “I don’t feel like I need to go back to Memphis by any means. I don’t think any of us do. Joe and Trevor pitched really well during their time in St. Louis, and I think I did too.”
Whatever happens, both Miller and Kelly are determined to not let the result affect their friendship.
What happens in their spring townhome, however, could be another story. Miller maintains he is the cleanest one of the group, but Kelly and Wacha beg to differ.
“Shelby doesn’t like doing dishes,” Kelly said, a fact Wacha readily confirmed.
“He seems to just finish eating and leaves the dishes in the sink for me and Joe,” Wacha said. “But you can definitely tell they have a pretty good friendship.”