Monday’s off day had a different meaning to Brad Keller. One he’s always dreamed about.
Before a two-game set against the Atlanta Braves, the Flowery Branch High graduate and starter for the Kansas City Royals went back home to see friends and family. It was detailed with lakefront views and punctuated by the smiling faces of his loved ones near his home in south Hall.
However, the highlight is tonight when Keller takes the hill in Game 2 of the series against the team he cheered for so ardently as a kid.
Getting to pitch in Atlanta is surreal for Keller — a kid who spent his birthdays on July 27 renting stretch limousines for the ride over to Turner Field. He arrived like a star, only to replicate similar grandeur a decade later as a big leaguer.
“I’ve always just watched them, but now that I’m getting the chance to play against them is really crazy,” he said.
Those closest to the Kansas City Royal have only seen him pitch in the majors a few times, some never.
Wednesday will be their shot, as the Flowery Branch native expects 60-70 loved ones to attend.
His level of flair has simmered, as he’s tried to keep a level head once reaching the exclusive brotherhood of Major League Baseball. He now enters the stadium via team bus. He tries to practice a demure lifestyle with a focus on consistency — his biggest learning curve since reaching the bigs.
“Try not to let the life or the big glam get into your head,” Keller said. “Just try to be the same dude every single day. On the field, it’s the highest level you can play, so it’s a lot of fun to go out there and play with guys and against guys who’ve been here for a while. It’s quite a journey, and I’m glad to be a part of the ride.”
Royals manager Ned Yost and general manager Dayton Moore had this planned before the All-Star break. Both having ties to Atlanta: Yost being the Braves’ bullpen coach from 1991-98 and residing in Georgia during the offseason, and Moore being a former Braves scout and assistant general manager from 1994-95.
They knew Keller wanted the ball.
So they prepared the schedule to coincide with Keller’s start without the Flowery Branch native knowing.
“That meant a lot to me,” Keller said. “... I can’t speak how highly I think of them. They’re just phenomenal people, and for them to do this for me and my family, it’s a lot of fun. I’m super excited. It’s going to be a crazy day.”
It’s hard for Keller to wrap his brain around this moment. He is just hours away from pitching against the team that made him fall in love with baseball. From afar, John Smoltz taught him how to compete and carry an edge atop the mound.
The 2019 Braves carry a similar presence that the Smoltz-Glavine-Maddux Braves era manifested. Just two years ago, Atlanta finished 72-90, 25 games back of first place in the NL East and in full rebuild mode. One year later, they finished 90-72, winning the division.
The Braves are currently in first place, 5 1/2 games in front of the second-place Nationals.
Kansas City (38-64) hopes the sudden success the Braves were able to muster will soon be a reality for their rebuilding team.
“It’s been fun,” Keller said of the Royals’ rebuild. “We all go through our little struggles and we are all learning from it. It’s fun to see everyone improve. From last year to this year, there’s a big difference. We all went through a struggle where we had to come together as a team and keep it going. We’re all really close with each other.
“I think it helps when trade guys come over. They can just fit right in.”
With the trade deadline (July 31) approaching and the Royals selling, Keller’s had to say goodbye to three teammates recently, including Homer Bailey (Athletics) and Martin Maldonado (Cubs).
“You want to root for them wherever they go,” Keller said. “All three of them are going to contending teams. I think it’d be really cool to see them in the postseason, and it’s good for their careers.”