Brad Keller was just trying to stay loose in the bullpen on Opening Day as he watched the Kansas City Royals’ deficit continue to grow March 29 against the Chicago White Sox.
The Royals had pulled starter Danny Duffy after the fourth inning and were running out of new relief pitchers to try to stem the tide.
“I had a few guys tell me, ‘Hey, you might want to start stretching. There’s a good chance you might be getting in this game,’” recalled the 22-year-old Flowery Branch High graduate.
Then the bullpen phone began to ring. Keller’s name transmitted from the direct line of the Royals dugout to the coach holding the handset.
Excitement and nerves quickly overcame Keller once his number was called.
“My stomach dropped,” he said. “It’s just like, ‘Oh gosh, here we go.’ It’s a moment you waited for your entire life, you know?”
Those emotions stayed with Keller as he jogged onto the field of Kauffman Stadium — sporting his white and royal blue Kansas City uniform — for the very first time. After five long years, he thought, he had finally arrived.
“I just kept thinking, ‘This is incredible. I can’t believe this is happening,’” he said.
That elation began to dwindle as soon as Keller touched the dirt of the mound. His competitiveness returned during warmups.
Keller’s initial pitch sailed against leadoff batter Adam Engel.
“It went up, and our catcher had to calm me down a little bit,” he said. “I just took a deep breath and went ‘All right, gotta get back on it.’ (I) made some good pitches after that.”
Things went a little smoother on the next four pitches, the latter rising belt-high and screeching across the plate as Engel’s bat whiffed on a hard cut for Keller’s first big league strikeout.
Not exactly what Keller’s catcher had in mind, but close enough.
“I was just trying to get it over the plate,” Keller said with a laugh. “(The third-strike pitch) was a fastball that kind of ran on me a little bit. … (I) was trying to go down and away, but it ran up and in. But I’ll take that all day.”
The Rule-5 acquisition player was a bright spot on a gloomy day for the Royals’ bullpen in a 14-7 loss. With just 13 pitches — all fastballs — Keller permitted no hits, no walks and did not give up a single run in the sixth inning — his only appearance on the mound. It impressed manager Ned Yost, as reported by the Kansas City Star on March 31.
A win was out of reach for the Royals that day, yes. But Keller’s childhood dream had just become a reality.
“It was a beautiful thing,” said Brad’s father, Dan Keller, who beside wife Patti and their other son Brandon were in attendance that day. “That’s always been his work ethic his entire life, you know? Just seeing him out there was a dream come true for (Patti and I).”
Keller’s celebrity status grew later that night while eating dinner with his family at the Capital Grille downtown, as their waitress, among others, gave her congratulations on the breakout performance.
To date, Keller has yet to give up a run in three outings in 3⅓ innings pitched for Kansas City.
Once a longshot to be a big league pitcher, Keller continues to count his blessings.
“Everything that (Brad) is getting is because of his hard work and dedication, and he is such a great young man,” said former Flowery Branch High baseball coach Scott Myers, who led the program during Keller’s final three years in high school. “And for everything that he gets coming to him from professional baseball, he deserves, just because of who he is as a person.”
Keller seemed poised for a promotion to Triple-A given his resume with the Double-A Jackson Generals. Last year, Keller recorded 111 strikeouts in 130⅔ innings spanning 26 starts despite a 4.68 ERA.
Destiny had other plans.
The turning point occurred on what began as a normal Thursday for Keller and around the time of the MLB general manager winter meetings back in December. As Keller began to make the trip from his home in Flowery Branch to a training facility in Norcross, it completely slipped his mind that it was also Rule 5 draft day.
“I didn’t put much thought into it because I always heard how tough it was to be picked in the Rule 5 draft,” said Keller.
Keller was soon bombarded by congratulatory text messages as he drove down the highway. His agent called to say the Cincinnati Reds had just picked Keller.
“No way this is happening,” he thought.
Minutes later on the commute, his agent called back.
“Just kidding. You got traded,” he said to Keller.
It was Kansas City this time.
“I get to my workouts and had a chance to collect my thoughts,” Keller said. “ ...I called my parents to tell them the news. ... It was just a crazy, whirlwind day.”
A happy one also.
The Rule 5 draft was put in place to protect minor-league players from being stashed away in a team’s farm system. Keller, who had spent the last five years in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, was one of two Rule 5 acquisitions for the Royals that day, and as part of the rule, would spend the entire 2018 season on the club’s 25-man roster, if not offered back to the Diamondbacks.
Keller seized the opportunity during Spring Training. With a 2-0 mark, he struck out 12 batters over eight innings in his seven appearances. His only slipup was three earned runs in a game against Arizona on March 10, when he gave up four consecutive two-out hits in one inning.
Flying under the radar
Looking at the towering 6-foot-5, 230-pound Keller now, it’s hard to fathom his presence went unnoticed for the majority of his high school career with the Falcons.
Myers and Flowery Branch athletic director Jimmy Lawler — who coached Flowery Branch prior to Myers — remembered Keller as a fun-loving, humble kid who also happened to boast a sizeable frame in his freshman season on the junior varsity team. Even then, it could be expected Keller’s stature would eventually translate into a sure No. 1 starter.
As predicted, Keller’s fastball climbed from the high 80s to the lower 90s as a sophomore.
By his senior season, Myers’ right-handed ace topped out at 96 mph. Keller’s only explanation for the dramatic jump in velocity was additional hours spent in the gym and a lot of long toss.
“He just matured, that 11th to 12th-grade year,” Brad’s father said. “I think he grew three inches, put on an extra 15 pounds of muscle. And that was it for him. He shot off like a rocket.”
It was also time for the elder Keller to retire his glove.
“It got so bad that I couldn’t play catch with him no more. ... It hurt,” Dan said with a laugh.
Keller’s stockier build granted him the deceptive movement that often fooled batters from his release point.
“I’m telling you, he was throwing the mess out of it,” Myers said. “You watch him long-toss it, and the ball just exploded out of his hand. It was crazy.”
Keller eventually compiled a 6-4 mark with a 2.16 ERA, tallying 87 strikeouts and just 21 walks in 60⅓ innings of work as a senior in 2013.
Keller’s presence, still, remained undetected by major league scouts.
Then everything changed.
Keller remembered it to be a cold afternoon during in spring 2013, midway through his senior year and two months before the MLB draft.
He took the mound for a regular-season game against Loganville, when he finally garnered looks from big league scouts. They originally filled the stands to watch Clint Frazier, one of the nation’s top major league prospects at the time, who is now in the big leagues with the New York Yankees.
Myers can still replay the sequence in his head of that first at-bat — Keller’s fastball to get ahead, the fastball a little up in the zone and then a fastball almost chest high to strike him out swinging.
Keller mixed in his slider to strike out Frazier once more in the game and spoil the occasion for the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft by the Cleveland Indians.
Phone calls began to pour in from the Diamondbacks and Royals, whose first glimpse of the senior came from a tape mailed to the organization by former Flowery Branch assistant Scott Gaffney, who now coaches at Dacula.
Sean Gibbs, a Royals associate scout at the time, was one of the first to be convinced of Keller’s stuff after watching the short video clip.
It wasn’t so much the pickup in his heater that drew intrigue. It was more of Keller’s downhill angled delivery with an ability to dip high-speed pitches into the strike zone. It could have been Keller’s attacking mentality too, adopted from his childhood idol John Smoltz, against every batter he faced.
Following a pre-draft workout at Kauffman Stadium later that spring, the Royals were one of two teams sold on Keller’s potential. But they couldn’t land him any higher than the 11th round due to monetary limits after signing their top-three draft picks to deals. That left the Diamondbacks as the other ballclub to get the jump, acquiring then-17-year-old Keller in the eighth round.
“It all happened so quick,” Dan Keller said.
Keller, once predestined to join Presbyterian College after graduation, instead inked a new path with Arizona.
Flash forward to today, Keller’s trek has come full circle to Kansas City.
“It’s weird how it all worked out, but I’m happy it did,” Keller said. “It’s been incredible.”
Keller’s four-seam fastball now routinely hits 94 mph, even occasionally touching the 97 mark.
Learning to throw a sinker three years prior in Single-A boosts his stock as he continues to blossom into a potential major league starter.
Keller said he has built solid camaraderie with the Royals’ pitching staff, and the soon-to-be 23-year-old plans to keep taking things day-by-day.
The MLB season is a marathon, after all.
“It’s kind of cliché saying, ‘Just get better every day.’ But essentially that’s all you can do, you know?” Keller said. I’m just trying to focus on this game and this moment. At the end of the day, if you execute your pitches most of the time, you’re gonna succeed. ... We have a great team and a great supporting staff.”
Myers, along with Keller’s family, plans to make the long drive to Kansas City as they continue to chart his progress this summer.
“He deserves everything he’s gonna get,” Myers said. “And I hope for his sake and his family’s sake it’s going to continue … and I think it will.”