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Dan Shaughnessy

Easy as 1-2-3 for Kelly

Sox prospect gives a nice account of himself in first try

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / March 4, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - It was only one inning. It was against a college team. But maybe someday we’ll tell our grandchildren about it. Maybe someday City of Palms Park will be renamed “Casey Kelly Field.’’

Boston baseball’s new golden boy pitched his first inning in front of Red Sox fans yesterday, retiring the Northeastern Huskies, 1-2-3, in the first inning of the first game of the 2010 spring season. Kelly struck out two (both swinging) and threw 10 pitches in his showcase start at City of Palms Park.

“I felt good out there,’’ Kelly said after the outing, a 15-0 victory for the Sox. “It was like my college debut. I talked to my dad last night and he told me to go out there and have fun. It’s the game I’ve been playing all my life.’’

All his life. All 20 years and five months.

This is a kid who was born into baseball. His dad, Pat, played 13 seasons of pro ball, including a Moonlight Grahamesque three-game cup of coffee in The Show with the Blue Jays in 1980. Kelly’s uncle, Mike, played six years in the bigs. His cousin, Dustin, played in the Sox minor league system, and his brother, Chris, is a pitcher in the minors with Tampa. When he was 6 years old, Casey Kelly played catch with a young Expos outfield prospect named Vladimir Guerrero.

Kelly turned down a shot to play quarterback at Tennessee when he signed with the Red Sox out of Sarasota High School two years ago. He has been a shortstop and a pitcher in the Sox system. Last year he went 6-1 with a 1.12 ERA at Greenville, while also hitting .224 with a homer and 10 RBIs in 32 games at short.

He was still playing shortstop in the Arizona Fall League last autumn, but over the winter, a meeting was held, and his father was summoned, and it was agreed that, moving forward, Kelly will be a starting pitcher.

And now he is a 20-year-old starter getting more hype than perhaps any pitcher in the Sox system since Roger Clemens was drafted after winning the 1983 College World Series at the University of Texas.

Kelly is 6 feet 3 inches, 195 pounds, and keeps his hair Hoosier-short. Everything about him says “future ace.’’ He is the second-highest-ranked Baseball America prospect in the Sox system. But unlike the young Clemens, he is poised, well-mannered, respectful, and cheerful. Kelly said the thing that made him most nervous yesterday was throwing to a veteran like Victor Martinez. He said Martinez wanted the young pitcher to shake him off a couple of times to confuse the hitters. Kelly couldn’t do it. Too green. Too polite.

He has yet to play above Single A ball at the professional level.

The phenom got ready for his first “big’’ start the way you would expect a 20-year-old kid would prepare. He munched from a bag of animal crackers, listened to music on his headphones, then made himself a sandwich that looked like it could cover home plate.

“I bet you he’s got some anxiety,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “I do think he’s handled himself really well.

“We can’t forget, he’s getting a lot thrown at him in a hurry. As long as this kid’s healthy, everything that gets thrown at him will be good. Every time he goes out there, he’s going to learn how to do something.’’

Wearing No. 93, Kelly took the mound just after 1 p.m. on a chilly afternoon (58 degrees). The park was three-quarters full for the first spring game of the 2010 season. Kelly’s mother, his brother, and some friends from high school were in the stands.

Fans eager to get a look at the kid had no time to sneak out for a hot dog. Kelly’s day was short and efficient.

He threw five pitches to Husky leadoff man Tucker Roeder of Red Hook, N.Y. Roeder swung and missed at a 2-and-2 changeup in the dirt and was thrown out at first by Martinez. Roeder was born Oct. 4, 1989, the same day as Kelly.

“I got four fastballs, then the changeup,’’ said Roeder. “The fastball was tailing in a little.’’

Lefthanded-hitting outfielder Tony DiCesare of Lynnfield was next. DiCesare, a senior, is 3 years older than Kelly and he can hit. DiCesare knew he should look for a first-pitch fastball and he got it, grounding to second.

“Probably around 91 miles an hour,’’ said DiCesare. “He probably throws a lot harder.’’

Kelly’s final batter was center fielder Frank Compagnone, a senior from Winter Springs, Fla. Compagnone put a couple of good swings on Kelly, fouling off two pitches, before fanning on a 1-and-2 changeup.

That was it for the kid. Ten pitches, seven for strikes. John Lackey and Clay Buchholz were among those who congratulated Kelly when he got to the dugout. His cellphone was full of texts by the time he did his work on the treadmill and iced down.

“I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since I came off the mound,’’ the kid said an hour later.

A day for memories. A day for smiles.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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