GLENDALE, Ariz. — Two years ago, in the Florida State League playoffs, facing a Yankees affiliate, Mitch Keller shoved. That year, the Pirates’ top prospect fired eight innings of shutout ball in the third game of the FSL’s championship series en route to a Bradenton title.
This year, again facing a Yankees’ affiliate, Keller shoved. This time, the 21-year-old righthander fanned eight over 7 1/3 innings of two-run ball to complete Altoona’s sweep of Trenton in the Eastern League Championship Series and finish his season on a very high note.
With this pattern in mind, you probably already know what Keller did on Wednesday in his Arizona Fall League debut. To be specific, he struck out four in three shutout innings in Glendale’s win over Peoria on a blazing hot day at Camelback Ranch.
And even with two straight years in the postseason, Keller admitted afterward that there were more than a few nerves when he took the mound on Wednesday.
“I was kind of nervous, actually,” Keller said. “I’ve never faced this many prospects or this good of a team. Once I got the first out, I kind of settled down and felt really good after that.”
Peoria’s roster featured Braves stud outfielder Ronald Acuña and Red Sox slugger Michael Chavis in the top part of the order, but he had no problems early on. Keller opened the game by getting Acuna to wave at a 97 mph fastball on the corner, and later froze Chavis on a similar pitch to end his afternoon.
Acuña got Keller in his next at-bat for a single, but overall he aced his first test against some of the best prospects the game has to offer.
“It gives you a bunch of confidence,” he said. “You always have in the back of your head that this guy is pretty good. Once you get him out, I’m not going to lie, it’s a big confidence boost. That helped me settle down a bit. (Acuña) got me there in the third inning with a base hit. He’s a really good player.”
Keller is in the Fall League for a couple of reasons. First, he missed significant time this year at high Class A with a back injury, so he’s making up those innings now. But he’s also continuing to develop as a prospect.
He’s got the type of arsenal to be a high-end starter—a vicious mid-90s fastball with a power curveball in the low-80s and a changeup as well—now he’s learning to use it to make the final leap he’ll need to get to the next level.
“I’m just trying to learn how to use all my pitches in different counts,” he said. “Knowing when to use them and how to use them and all that and just getting ready for the upper levels and hopefully the big leagues some day. … I’m just finding times in the game (to use certain pitches) and not forcing it.”
Like many of the prospects here, Keller is aware that the AFL often serves as a finishing school for the best of the best. He got a first-hand look at one of its most recent graduates on Monday night, when Cody Bellinger and the Dodgers were in town for the third game of the National League Division Series against the Diamondbacks.
A friend hooked Keller and teammate Cole Tucker up with tickets to the game, where he watched Bellinger and his teammates celebrate a sweep of Arizona and a ticket to the NLCS. A year ago, Bellinger was in the AFL. Now he’s playing for the right to go to the World Series.
Seeing that in person made him realize that the dreams he’s always had—playing in the major leagues and getting a chance to win a championship—aren’t that far away.
“It’s kind of surreal,” he said. “I’m just trying to enjoy my time being a professional baseball player. I don’t want to get too big and think about the big leagues, because then stuff can go wrong. I’m trying to stay where I’m at and not think too much down the road, but (seeing the big league game) was kind of cool, just to think that we could be there someday.”
Keller’s efforts were backed by an offensive barrage from some of his teammates in the Phillies system. Third baseman Zach Green slammed a fastball from Peoria starter Max Povse—who was dealt from the Braves to the Mariners last offseason—over the wall just to the left of dead center field.
Later in the game, left field Cornelius Randolph—the Phillies’ first-round pick in 2015 out of high school in Georgia—clubbed a two-run double. Randolph had a rebound season this year with high Class A Clearwater, where he hit 13 home runs after hitting three in his first season and a half as pro in 2015 and 2016.
Chavis added two more hits to his brief AFL ledger, including a rocket double off of White Sox reliever Matt Foster in the ninth inning.
Another White Sox reliever, righthander Connor Walsh, took over for Keller in the fourth inning and showed a 96-98 mph fastball with excellent cut life. He complemented the pitch with a hard curveball in the low-80s and a changeup in the high-80s. He used that arsenal to whiff a pair in his only inning.