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Kelly improving with full focus on baseball

By Jack Magruder
October 29, 2001

Kelly
Kenny Kelly
Photo: Michael Walby
PEORIA, Ariz.--Kenny Kelly dropped the shoulder pads and the books.

Nuances are what the Mariners center field prospect is studying now with the Peoria Javelinas, after leaving a college football career at the University of Miami to concentrate solely on baseball.

With an eye toward detail, Kelly has been more than a subtle presence in the Arizona Fall League, where he was hitting .362-5-12 in 69 at-bats.

"This organization has worked with me on the little things, the things that when I was playing football I wasn't paying attention to," said Kelly, obtained by Seattle in a late-spring deal with Tampa Bay after being the Devil Rays' second-round choice in the 1997 draft.

"Hitting isn't easy. Seattle has taught me a lot of stuff, a lot of simple stuff, like getting my front foot down (during a swing). I had a rough first month this summer, because I was doing some of the things I was doing in the past."

It showed only briefly. A.259 hitter with 11 home runs in 1,012 career minor league at-bats entering the year, Kelly batted .262-11-46 in his first season in the Mariners' organization at Double-A San Antonio. The 22-year-old set career highs in virtually every offensive category except stolen bases, which were down from 31 in 2000 to 18. He finished the season on a tear, hitting .298-7-27 over his last 245 at-bats.

"I feel comfortable as a hitter now," said Kelly, who attributes some of that to the contact lenses he began wearing last season. "I'm concentrating on stealing that bag, getting jumps on the ball, putting the ball in play, cutting down on my strikeouts. I'm here (in the AFL) to get at-bats, something I haven't had in the past four years."

Kelly, 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, has batted first, second, seventh and eighth for the Javelinas as manger Duane Espy mixes and matches his potent lineup. Of Kelly's early homers, the most impressive may have been an opposite field shot.

"You start hitting opposite field home runs deep in the right-center field gap, you've got some pop," Espy said. "You don't do that by accident.

"I can say nothing but glowing things about him. He's obviously very blessed with speed. We're trying very hard to get him to be aggressive with that. The thing I've been surprised by is, he's flashed pretty good power. He's a guy that obviously has a chance to hit at the top of the lineup and steal some bases."

Kelly and fellow Javelina Drew Henson (Yankees) have had their talks about football and even share a catch now and then. Kelly said he still talks to Darryl Jones and other Miami players, but is fine with his decision to focus on baseball.

"My whole family is football oriented," he said, "but I just felt it was the best thing for me to give up football. I love baseball much as football. I think I made the right choice."

FALL GUYS

• Mesa outfielder Mario Valenzuela (White Sox) had the ultimate feast-or-famine game Oct. 22. Valenzuela grounded into double plays in his first two plate appearances before homering in his final three in a 10-4 win against Grand Canyon. He hit two two-run homers and one with the bases empty to temporarily tie Peoria third baseman Hank Blalock (Rangers) for the league lead with five.

• Blalock hit two the same night, when he also drove in six runs and scored four in a 23-3 victory against Maryvale. Peoria DH Drew Henson (Yankees) hit for the cycle in that win despite making outs in his first two at-bats. Henson doubled in the fourth, tripled in the fifth and capped it off with a single and a homer in the eighth. He drove in five runs and scored three.

• Also in that game, Peoria lefthander Eric Cyr (Padres) stretched his shutout streak to 17 innings with five more scoreless innings. Cyr had not been scored on since giving up a homer to the first batter he faced, Phoenix shortstop Mark Ellis (Athletics), on Oct. 5.

• Scottsdale pitchers struck out 17 Mesa batters Oct. 24, the same day the Peoria staff struck out 15 Grand Canyon batters. Scottsdale starter Donnie Bridges (Expos) struck out seven in four innings, while reliever Jeremy Affeldt (Royals) struck out eight in 3 2/3 innings. Peoria's Bobby Jenks (Angels) struck out an AFL-high nine in five innings Oct. 19.

• The league shortened the rest of the regular season by cutting scheduled Saturday doubleheaders to just one game. The season ends Nov. 15, with a one-game playoff Nov. 17 at Scottsdale Stadium.

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