Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton handed Mitch Keller the opening day assignment — and a celebratory bottle of bubbly.
Shelton broke the news to the 26-year-old right-hander on Wednesday that he’ll get the nod when Pittsburgh begins the season at Cincinnati on March 30.
In a video posted on the Pirates’ Twitter feed, Shelton and Keller sat down in the manager’s office and began discussing the right-hander’s side session.
Shelton asked how many pitches he threw.
“Twenty or so. I didn’t really count,” Keller said.
“How many do you think you’ll throw on the 30th?” Shelton asked.
“I have no idea. What’s the 30th?” the pitcher replied.
“Opening day,” Shelton said.
“Ha ha!” Keller said, taking a moment to let it sink in. “Come on! Oh my god, dude!”
Shelton offered a congratulatory handshake and the two hugged. Shelton told Keller how proud he was of the hard work the pitcher put in transforming himself from prospect to big leaguer.
“Thanks! This is so sick!” said Keller, who requested another hug.
Shelton then handed Keller a bottle of Champagne. “First of many. You and Clanc, go ahead and celebrate,” the manager said, referring to Keller’s wife, Clancy.
“Yeah, we will,” said Keller, who added, “I can’t wait to tell my parents. This is cool.”
After struggling in his first three big league seasons, Keller revived his career in 2022, going 5-12 with a 3.91 ERA in 31 games, with 29 starts. A brief stint in Triple-A last spring helped him refine a sinker that became an important secondary pitch during a promising second half. Keller went 2-5 with a 3.09 after the All-Star break.
Shelton later told reporters it was a special moment breaking the news to Keller.
“He was pretty fired up. This is a kid who was a very highly touted prospect and had to grind a little bit and discovered himself. It was a cool moment,” Shelton said. “Everybody aspires to be an opening day starter at some point in their career, but for young guys coming up, I do think it’s something they can look and say, ‘Hey, this is a guy who came through our system.’’’
Keller is the seventh different opening day starter for the Pirates in the last seven years, including JT Brubaker last season.
The last Pirate to start consecutive opening days was Francisco Liriano, who took the mound first for Pittsburgh from 2014-16.
The Kansas City Royals optioned right-hander Jackson Kowar, a first-round pick in the 2018 draft, to Triple-A Omaha along with right-hander Max Castillo and infielder Samad Taylor as they continue to finalize their opening day roster.
Kowar was drafted out of Florida as part of a wave of college prospects that Kansas City hoped would form the backbone of its rotation. But so far, only Brady Singer has emerged as a potential staff ace. Kowar, who allowed 17 runs in just 15 2/3 innings last season, coughed up three runs in five innings this spring.
Castillo and Taylor were acquired from the Blue Jays in a trade for infielder Whit Merrifield lsat season. Taylor in particular had a good spring, hitting .400 with a pair of homers, and is expected to help the Royals at some point this season.
IKF TO CF?
With Harrison Bader expected to be out until late April with a left oblique strain, the New York Yankees are considering having Isiah Kiner-Falefa play center field. Manager Aaron Boone plans to start Kiner-Falefa in center field beginning Friday.
“He’s worked in the outfield the last couple of days and I looked at some video of it the other day, just watching how his feet move and stuff,” Boone told reporters. “I think he’d be natural out there; the ability to move around, his speed and athleticism, his bat-to-ball.”
Kiner-Falefa, who came into spring training competing for the job at shortstop, said it’s “just good to add some tools. Shortstop is obviously the second-hardest position on the field after being a catcher, so adding center field to my resume a little bit is good; just being able to play there in a pinch if something happens and the team needs me.”
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh and Dave Skretta in Kansas City contributed to this report.
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