CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- In a season in which North Carolina needed a veteran pitcher to step up, reliever Trevor Kelley has become the Tar Heels’ most important player of the 2015 campaign. In an 8-3 win over Campbell on Tuesday, the senior right-hander picked up his fourth win of the season after tossing 4.1 innings in relief and allowing just three hits without a run.
That type of performance has been the norm for UNC’s most effective reliever.
“I don’t know where we would be without Trevor Kelley,” UNC head coach Mike Fox said after the win. “He’s our MVP; you can go ahead and make the plaque right now. We wouldn’t be where we are without him. He has been our savior out of the bullpen, and obviously was really good tonight.”
For the season, Kelley is now 4-1 with a 2.17 ERA in 54 innings of work. Yet, the most impressive thing about Kelly’s season is his 29 appearances, which are the most in the NCAA.
“That is a credit to him,” UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes said. “He’s just been so consistent and he has worked so hard… He is one of those guys that you know what you are going to get, and when you have a guy like that who is a side-armer, it is hard not to put him in the game.”
The Wilmington, N.C. product certainly hasn’t had the easiest road. Last season, a bone spur in his throwing arm made his job incredibly difficult.
“On the mound last year I couldn’t even touch the bill of my cap without getting a shooting pain,“ Kelley said. “The only time it didn’t hurt was when I was throwing it as hard as I could. This year, [there’s] nothing, so I can actually concentrate on something other than the pain.”
Kelley’s recovery, along with his unique delivery, has allowed the veteran righty to significantly increase his accuracy and his durability.
“When I dropped down to a side-arm delivery, it was easy to recover,” Kelley said. “Especially after I got that bone spur removed, it has been night and day. There is no pain anywhere in my arm.”
The right-hander also had to strengthen his mental resolve. Last spring, the prevailing thought was that Kelley had a chance be drafted, but that goal didn’t materialize.
“He was disappointed that he didn’t get drafted, obviously, because he’s a pretty talented kid,” Forbes said. “But he had the right attitude about it and came back.”
Fox brought in two sports psychologists during the offseason and Kelley didn’t hesitate to grab his iPad and take notes. One key takeaway was maintaining an even-keeled approach through the highs and lows of a long season.
“We’ve talked a lot about it, but it’s learning to control his emotions,” Forbes said. “Trevor is so competitive, that if something negative happened on the mound he would get so mad at himself that he wouldn’t slow things down and make the next pitch. I think he has really learned from that and bought in to how important your brain is on the mound.”
Kelley’s remarkable consistency has been even more critical for the Heels considering the injury to Reilly Hovis.
Hovis was Carolina’s most reliable pitcher out of the pen last season, but has been out since late February with an injury to his ulnar collateral ligament (he underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery last week).
“That’s another reason he’s been the MVP,” Forbes said. “Losing a guy like Reilly Hovis, who was probably our best pitcher last year, somebody had to step up… Trevor has done a great job of allowing us to bridge the gap.”
With the pressure of a future MLB career and the stress of pitching in almost every game, one might think that things have begun to wear on the anchor of Carolina’s bullpen. In fact, just the opposite has been true. With all of that time on the mound and the preparation that comes along with it, the senior pitcher has managed to stay focused on the here and now.
“It feels like I’m an every day guy and I love that feeling, coming to the stadium and having the opportunity to pitch every day,” Kelley said. “It’s my senior year. The time is ticking. Every opportunity to me is so precious and I am never going to say 'no' to the opportunity to pitch.”
Kelley Earning MVP Status
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