PITTSBURGH — A surprising positive COVID-19 test when he arrived at summer camp forced Pittsburgh Pirates closer Keone Kela to find creative ways to say in shape. Really creative.
With PNC Park off limits while he followed Major League Baseball’s health protocols, Kela started riding around the city with a stash of balls, a net and time to kill. He long tossed into a net in the parking lot at the Pittsburgh Zoo. He played “Wall Ball” off the pillars of the Fort Duquesne Bridge. He rolled through the South Side bar district in search of open space to let it rip.
“I’ve seen Pittsburgh now during this quarantine,” Kela said with a laugh on Wednesday.
The view will change considerably on Thursday for Kela when he joins the injury-ravaged Pirates for a four-game series in Cincinnati. Six Pittsburgh pitchers currently find themselves on the injured list, including relievers Kyle Crick, Clay Holmes and Nick Burdi. The strain on those left has been obvious.
The last-place Pirates are 27th in the majors in ERA (5.32) and the turnover in the bullpen has been particularly jarring. Nearly two dozen pitchers have taken the hill for Pittsburgh through 16 games, including catcher John Ryan Murphy, who actually tossed a scoreless ninth in a loss to Detroit last Saturday.
The fiery Kela’s arrival provides some semblance of a return to normalcy. Or at least whatever passes for normalcy in 2020.
“Getting him back in our clubhouse and his leadership and the person he is, I’m excited about that,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “Secondly, the guy that we talked about being our closer the second day of spring training is now back in the fold, so it kind of lets guys go into regular roles moving forward, as much as availability allows.”
Kela isn’t worried about being bit by the injury bug that’s made throwing a baseball this season a dicey proposition. He is confident in the path set out by pitching coach Oscar Marin and is confident the form that helped his record 25 saves for Texas in 2018 before moving into primarily a set-up role after being traded to Pittsburgh at the deadline is not far off.
“I don’t really feel like I’ve lost much of the pep in my step,” the 27-year-old said. “The ball’s coming out hot. Curveball is sharp. I feel like I have my command. I’m convicted when I’m up there. I have confidence. I don’t feel like the quarantine necessarily knocked me off my game.”
Kela returns to a team that is a major-league worst 3-13. He’s aware that opportunities to be a difference-maker in the ninth might not come along that often. He’s told Shelton to feel free to use him in whatever high-leverage situation works best and if that’s not the final frame, so be it.
“With the way that we’ve been playing ball, I just want to be able to get out there to secure the innings that are most important for us to move forward and put a (win) on the board at the end of the night,” Kela said. “If I have to face 3-4-5 in the eighth inning because that’s the most pivotal inning, that’s what I’m here for.”
Though Kela is careful to talk only in the present tense, he’s in an unusual spot in his career. The Pirates are in the beginning stages of a reboot, and Kela is one of the few tradeable assets they have. He’s also on the brink of free agency and it’s unlikely Pittsburgh would spend big on a closer for a team whose return to contention might still be a few years down the road.
Not that Kela is in the mood to think about the future. It’s been enough of a journey just to get to the present. He endured a chaotic 2019 that included getting suspended for igniting a brawl in Cincinnati with a couple of wayward pitches and being hit with a two-game ban from the Pirates for an altercation with a member of the team’s support staff.
He talked extensively in the spring about his eagerness to turn the page. Six months later, it’s finally time to do just that.
“This is a game of a lot of failure,” Kela said. “You have to go through the ups and downs and to stay even-keeled through it to find success.”
NOTES: Burdi (right forearm strain) will receive what director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk called a “biological injection” and at the moment will not require surgery. He will be re-evaluated in 10-12 weeks. … Starting pitcher Mitch Keller (right lat strain) has yet to play catch but could return at some point this season. … Crick (forearm sprain) will attempt to throw to live hitters next week.