Kelly Makes Red Sox’ Opening Day Roster

 In Local News

Today marks the beginning of the Major League Baseball season, and former Newberry College standout Zack Kelly has earned his spot on the Red Sox’ Opening Day roster.

Thursday is Boston’s home opener, with the Red Sox taking on the Baltimore Orioles at 2:10 p.m. EDT.

Kelly made his major-league debut on Aug. 29, pitching for the Red Sox against the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis. The right-hander pitched a scoreless sixth inning, with two strikeouts and a hit, in what would be the first of 13 appearances for Boston in August and September. Thursday will be the first time Kelly has made an Opening Day roster in the big leagues.

The Virginia native’s journey to the majors has been awe-inspiring. He came out of Lord Botetourt High School, just outside of Roanoke, and played two seasons for Concord in West Virginia before transferring to Newberry in 2016.

“I can still recall the day he called me asking for an opportunity. I’m thankful for the call and that our program gets the opportunity to feel his impact to this day,” said head Wolves baseball coach Russell Triplett. “Zack Kelly is the prime example of what happens when you combine work ethic, determination, with being an overall good person.”

He took an uncommon and unlikely route to the pros, signing undrafted with the Oakland Athletics’ organization for only $500 after graduating from Newberry in 2017.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t even know if I was going to have a chance,” said Kelly. “During my senior year, I had a couple of teams that were interested, but nothing really materialized. But then it was our senior night against Lenoir-Rhyne, and a scout from the Oakland A’s came. … I ended up being able to sign after the draft as a free agent, and from there my mindset was, if I have a jersey on my back then I have a chance.”

Kelly pitched in the rookie-level Arizona League in 2017 before being released in April 2018. He was “fortunate enough” to get another chance with the Los Angeles Angels later that year.

“You get released and whatever I’ve been doing for the last year, that’s not going to cut it, it’s not going to get me anywhere, so I had a different mindset once I went over there,” said Kelly.

He climbed the ranks of the Angels system in 2018 and 2019, with stops in San Bernadino, California, and Mobile, Alabama. He “had a couple of good years” before a devastating double whammy — an elbow injury and a pandemic.

“Everybody was losing money and teams got rid of a lot of players. I had gotten hurt a couple months before and in need of surgery, and so that was a pretty easy decision for them to let go,” he said.

To his relief, after his recovery Kelly was able to sign with the Red Sox organization later that year. He played for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs before being promoted to the Triple-A Worcester Red Sox in 2021. He was invited to spring training as a non-roster player in 2022, then returned to Triple-A to start the season. He was on the bus with his Worcester teammates when he got the big call-up on Aug. 28.

“There was no way to put it into words, obviously super excited, and humbled to get the opportunity finally,” he said of getting the news. “Getting to the big leagues doesn’t happen very often … hardly any non-drafted free agents get to the big leagues, so I’m grateful to be an example for that.”

Making the majors wasn’t the only dream to come true that week. Four days after making his debut at Fenway, Kelly was back in Newberry as he and his wife, Brittany, welcomed their first child, a son. He came back from paternity leave the following Monday.

“I think pitching that week was the easiest part,” he said. “The hardest part was making plans to get home, for my parents to get to Minnesota and then back to Virginia and then down to South Carolina. I had to make sure everything was good with my wife and get to the hospital with the baby.”

Kelly said the logistics are a bit easier now that Brittany and little Kayden are in Boston during the season. As for time management, he said despite the challenge, he’s got it pretty well covered.

“Whenever I come home, I turn baseball mode off and be a dad, and when it’s time to flip the switch to baseball, I go 100%,” he said.

His perseverance has been paying off from the start. In late September, Kelly received the Red Sox’ Lou Gorman Award, which is given annually to a Red Sox minor league player who has demonstrated dedication and perseverance in overcoming obstacles while working his way to the Major League team.

“Nothing has come easy for Zack, but he doesn’t allow that to become a reason or excuse. He’s a competitor with a will to win and he’s proven that over and over. It’s pretty amazing to get to see a Newberry alum make the Opening Day roster for the Red Sox. I couldn’t be more proud of Zack,” said Triplett.

With his first Opening Day hours away, Kelly said, the destination is awesome, and so has been the journey.

“Pitching in Fenway Park is a feeling that I can’t really describe, all the history that’s there and all the legends of baseball that have come through that stadium,” he said. “With my career and how it’s unfolded, it’s maybe not as ideal for some. It’s a lot different, but I take pride in that. … As for my time at Newberry, I really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Newberry College is a really special place.”

Kelly said he gets back to his alma mater every chance he gets, and Triplett said he’s grateful to have him. He threw the first pitch at the Wolves’ Feb. 3 home opener against Francis Marion. For college players and anyone else looking to succeed in life, Kelly said the key is to go all-in toward your goal.

“Pick whatever you want to do and don’t let anybody tell you different,” he said. “Whenever I was going through the tail end of my college career, and I said I wanted to play professional baseball, people would ask me, ‘what’s your ‘plan B?’’ I didn’t have one, so I didn’t have an option. Having a ‘plan A,’ you have to be 100% committed to that, and if it doesn’t work out, find a new ‘plan A.’ I think having a ‘plan B’ is a fallback, almost like you don’t believe that ‘plan A’ can happen. Whatever you want to do, do everything you can to get there and don’t let anybody tell you it’s not realistic. It might take a little bit, but you’d be surprised.”