Joe Kelly’s Collegiate Career (2007-2009)
The Transition to Pitching
Joe Kelly got to college on a baseball scholarship, but not as a pitcher.
He played his high school days as a center fielder. While his 5’10”, 148 pound frame wasn’t enough to get many major league scouts out to Corona High often, a .371 batting average during his senior year was enough to earn him a scholarship to the University of California, Riverside.
It was during his very first practice on the field at UCR’s Baseball Complex that his outfield career came to an end. Joe was throwing long toss in the outfield when the coaching staff saw the potential in his arm. UCR manager Doug Smith and pitching coach Andrew Checketts insisted that he hop on a mound and give pitching a try.
“Yeah, why not? It looks pretty easy”, Joe recalled thinking at the time. “I threw it to the catcher as hard as I could. It ended up being a strike. They were like, ‘Can you do it again?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do it again.’ They were like, ‘All right, let me go back and get the radar gun.’”
After Joe had touched 92mph in the bullpen in just “turf shoes — no spikes or anything”, coach Smith had seen enough. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist at this point to talk to him about making the switch”, said Smith.
But it didn’t come that easy for Joe to make the transition; he was an outfielder, and wanted to remain in the outfield. “I didn’t want to do it, that’s for sure,” said Joe, “I wasn’t happy about it at first. When you’re a position player, you don’t want to pitch. It’s boring.”
“He only pitched a couple of innings in high school, but when we saw him throwing from the outfield and then had him throw a bullpen session, we knew we had something special,” said Smith.
After some persuasion on the part of the coaching staff, Joe finally caved and converted to pitcher full-time.
A lot of things went very well for Joe during his freshman year in 2007. And those things can be attributed to that move to the mound.
In his first year as a pitcher for UCR, he entered 22 games and had a 1.32 ERA while saving 6 contests. He helped lead the team to the 2007 Big West Conference Championship, and earned the Big West Conference Freshman Pitcher of the Year award and was namedFirst-Team All-Conference along the way.
He was also named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball magazine and Ping!, and named to Second Team All-American Team by Rivals.com.
Team USA, And A Silver Medal: Joe Kelly At The 2007 Pan-American Games
2007 was a huge year in Joe Kelly’s life and amatuer career. After a monster freshman campaign as the closer for UC Riverside, Kelly was added to Team USA’s roster for the Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As one of three freshman pitchers on the roster, he ended up only pitching two innings in the competition. In those 2 innings, he allowed one earned run on two hits and two walks. However, he earned the win in Team USA’s 7-5 victory over Brazil in the preliminaries.
In the semifinals, Team USA was able to defeat Mexico 2-1, but fell to the powerhouse Cuban national team 2-1, and ultimately settled for the silver medal.
Later in 2007, Kelly also pitched two innings and allowed three runs for the third place finishing US Team in the World Port Tournament.
Sophomore and Junior Seasons
The 2008 and 2009 seasons weren’t as friendly to Joe Kelly. In his sophomore season, he appeared in 17 games — third most for a relief pitcher in the Big West — but recorded a 9.35 ERA in 17.2 innings pitched. While he collected 6 saves and posted a 2-1 record, he also walked more batters (10) than he struck out (8)..
Kelly’s junior season still saw him be named to the Baseball America Preseason All-American Third Team.
While his 5.65 ERA was a bit on the high side, he still entered 23 games, going 1-1 with 12 saves.
Joe had accumulated a 6-3 record with a 4.92 ERA and a school record 23 saves — still a Highlanders record — in his first three seasons with UCR before his mid-90’s fastball was enough for the St. Louis Cardinals to draft him in the third round of the 2009 MLB first-year player draft.