BALTIMORE — Boston Red Sox pitcher Joe Kelly and Atlanta Braves pitcher Shelby Miller are the closest of friends and have been since they became roommates in the lower minors with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Kelly was a groomsman in Miller’s wedding. A week later, Miller stood up for Kelly at his wedding.
“He’s like a little brother to me,” Kelly said, “but we never really fought like brothers, like wrestling, punching each other, throwing rocks at each other. Nothing like that.
“He’s younger than me. I’m 26. He’s about to turn 25. He was someone I’d keep an eye on. He didn’t know what being an adult was at an early age. Neither did I, but I went to college, so I had that experience to get that out of my life.”
To this day, they keep in regular touch.
“We text each other back and forth,” Kelly said. “We don’t go two weeks without saying hello and seeing how things are. I talked to him last week.”
The friendship endures, even as their fortunes this season have hurtled in opposite directions.
Kelly took the mound Tuesday night in Baltimore in search of his ninth consecutive victory, which would have put him in the company of Pedro Martinez, the most recent Sox pitcher to win nine starts in a row. Kelly was tied with Jake Arrieta of the Cubs for most consecutive starts with a win this season.
The streak ended, though, as he was pulled in the third inning with fatigue and tightness in his right shoulder, trailing 3-1.
Shelby Miller was named an all-star based on his first-half performance, but he’s been the victim of bad luck and run support in his last 21 starts. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports
On Wednesday in Atlanta, meanwhile, Miller will take the mound against Blue Jays ace David Price, but in his case history is an unwelcome intruder. Miller has gone 21 consecutive starts without a victory, a span in which he is 0-13 with eight no-decisions.
“That’s a tough run, man,” Kelly said. “He’s throwing the ball well, too. It’s not like he’s on a tear and not pitching well. He’s pitching well. It’s probably more mentally tough, grinding on him, than most people think.”
Miller pitched well enough at the start of the season to be named a National League All-Star. Now, despite a perfectly acceptable 3.51 ERA over his past 21 starts, he has summoned the name of Jack Nabors from the dustbin of history.
Nabors has made the most consecutive starts in a season, 27, without a win. In 1979, Oakland’s Matt Keough came close, going 23 starts before winning his first game of the season.
On April 22, 1916, Nabors, who was in his first full season with the Philadelphia Athletics, beat the Red Sox 6-2, striking out Babe Ruth in Ruth’s only at-bat that day.
He didn’t win another game the rest of the season. The Athletics went 36-117 that season, their .235 winning percentage still the worst in modern baseball history.
Nabors probably had no business being in the big leagues but the Athletics had sold off most of their stars and owner/manager Connie Mack promoted him to the majors directly from Class D, the lowest rung of the minor leagues.
“I have never in my life seen a ballplayer as green as he was when he joined us,” Mack said, according to his biographer Steven V. Rice (SABR History Project). “I have had plenty of green ones, but he was the limit. I took a liking to the youngster because he realized that he knew absolutely nothing about the game. All he could do was throw the ball. He did not even know how to wind up, much less have a delivery.”
Nabors’ roommate, Charlie Grimm, said the young Alabaman was not undone by his incredible run of misfortune.
“You think that turned him to brooding, made him sour or a bad companion? Not at all,” Grimm said. “Nabors was the cheeriest individual you could ever find. He was happy because he was in the major leagues and going around the circuit in princely style. After losing game after game, many of which were lost by evil support, he never complained, but just took it as a matter of course.”
Kelly said Miller’s winless drought has to be kept in perspective, too.
“He’s pitched better than I have this whole year,” Kelly said. “He’s pitched well. I’ve just happened to be lucky the last eight.
“I pitched bad for 92 innings. That’s probably more mentally tough than not winning. If I was pitching well and hadn’t won a game, I’d be fine with that.
“At the end of the day he’s going to feel good about his year. If he shut it down right now, he had a great year. He’s an All-Star.”
Nabors, by the way, never won another game in the big leagues. He was released the next season, enlisted in the Army in 1918, became a victim of the flu epidemic that swept the country that year, and died of tuberculosis in 1923. He was 35.