The players we love to hate – Ryan Raburn, Brandon Inge, Jose Valverde, Gerald Laird – are scattered amongst the MLB landscape, as Mike Ilitch continues his pursuit to purchase an All-Star at every position. So aside from our nicotine-addicted skipper, who will fans blame for every little thing that goes awry this season?
Detroit Lions head coach Wayne Fontes was dubbed “Rasputin” because rumors of his demise were constant, but he could conjure up a winning streak at the very moment the axe was ready to fall. Likewise super-utility man Don Kelly, who has once again entered the picture for 25th man on the Tigers roster.
Now 33, Detroit drafted him as a shortstop in 2001, and Kelly has taken a circuitous route to the end of a major league bench. After creeping up the minor-league ladder, he bounced between Erie and Toledo in ’05 and ’06 and was released after the ’06 season. By then he had learned that carrying many gloves was his best ticket to the bigs, and the Pennsylvanian was scooped up by his hometown Pirates.
He headed north with the Bucs in ’07, but it turned out to be a cold cup of coffee – 4 singles in 27 trips – he finished the year at AAA Indianapolis and was released thereafter. The Arizona Diamondbacks gave him a shot, and he rocked it for the Tuscon Sidewinders in the PCL – .275, 8 HR’s, 24 2B’s, while playing mainly at second base, but with time at short, third and in the outfield. Apparently unimpressed, the D-backs turned him loose and he signed with the Tigers before camp in ’09.
With the Mudhens, Kelly built on his solid ’08 campaign with a .331 avg in 120 games, 20 2B’s, 6 3B’s, 6 HR’s and 27 SB’s. Called up to the Tigers on June 12, he spent the rest of June in the majors before returning to Toledo, and was recalled in September. He stuck with the team out of spring training in ’10, ’11, and ’12; last season, he was sent to Toledo in August after compiling a miserable .175 avg. with 1 HR and 7 RBI. When the rosters expanded in September, Kelly was called back, and made the postseason roster based on his defensive flexibility. He was left off the 40-man roster after the World Series, and signed a minor-league contract with the Tigers in January.
Here are the top five Don Kelly moments as a Tiger:
5. October 2, 2011 – ALDS Game 2 vs. Yankees. Pinch-runs for Magglio Ordonez in the 6th and scores a run, then has an RBI single in the 9th. Both are critical insurance runs as Jose Valverde struggles to close with a 4-run lead – and Kelly makes a nice grab in RF to help bail Papa Grande out.
4. Wednesday, June 29, 2011 – Retires the Mets Scott Hairston on 5 pitches for the final out in a 16-9 Tigers loss, taking a bit of heat off a pitching staff that allowed 33 runs in two games.
3. October 6, 2009 – Game 163 vs. Minnesota Twins. Pinch-running for Aubrey Huff, Kelly scores from 1st on a double by Inge to take a 5-4 lead in the top of the 10th. With the game tied at 5 in the 12th, Donnie loops a single to left, sending Cabrera to 3rd and taking 2nd on the throw. A 5-2 forceout by Inge and Laird strikeout ends the rally, and the Twins win in the bottom of the 12th.
2. October 6, 2011 – ALDS Game 5 vs. Yankees. Kelly drops the barrel on a low fastball from Ivan Nova for a 1st inning solo shot; Delmon Young would follow with a homer and a 2-0 lead in what would be a 3-2 victory and a trip to the ALCS.
1. October 7, 2012 – ALDS Game 2 vs. Oakland. Pinch running for Young, Kelly scores on a wild pitch in the bottom of the 8th to tie it up at 4. With the bases loaded and 1 out in the bottom of the ninth, DK unties it with a solid sacrifice fly to center.
For a guy that has only played in 353 major-league games, those are some compelling October accomplishments. Throw in his ability to be decent with the glove wherever he plays – infield and outfield – and his resume’ becomes stronger. Unlike other weak-stick-good-glove players of recent memory, Kelly harbors no delusions that he deserves more playing time, and doesn’t blame his perennial hitting woes on “pitchers pitching him like Babe Ruth.”
At this writing, Kelly is not hurting his chances in spring ball with three extra base hits and a single in 15 AB’s. Knowing Leyland’s crotchety deference to all things familiar, it looks like he has an inside track to one of the available bench spots. So take a deep breath and tell yourself that’s OK.
Because let’s face it – if the Tigers need any more than 150 at bats from anyone in the running for the 25th roster spot, it’s going to be a long season, one that probably won’t end well.