BRADENTON, Fla. - Keone Kela entered the cramped clubhouse Monday at Pirate City with a smile. He took time to greet the assembled media and regaled the group with stories of becoming a girl dad during the offseason.
Kela noted how becoming a parent for the second time, combined with his offseason preparation, kept him from obsessing about the Pirates' numerous changes to the front office and coaching staff in recent months.
"Changing diapers and preparing bottles helped to keep me off Twitter and Instagram," Kela told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday. "Plus, the changes happened so late that I was already deep into my routine to get ready for the season. I didn't see too much into it. I knew that I needed to focus on making sure I have a healthy season. I want to be dominant this year."
Kela showed ability to dominate from July 24 through the end of last season. He threw 18 innings in 18 outings while only giving up one run on eight hits, seven walks and one hit batter. He faced 69 batters during the stretch and struck out 22 of those hitters.
Before the good came some bad for Kela. He got off to a rough start as he battled a shoulder injury that led to a 4.63 ERA in his first 14 appearances. The damage went back to last spring, and Kela couldn't get right in the first month of the season.
"It was a tough time," Kela said. "I hated not being able to perform at the peak of my ability. It hurt not to be able to help my teammates."
Kela wound up on the injured list from May 5 until July 24. There were also the off- and on-field fights, which led to suspensions. And there was a perception of a combative relationship with reporters.
"It's time to change the narrative," Kela said. "That starts with me. We have a good group of guys in here. We're going to have fun and play with passion. We don't have any shadiness or anything like that. We're kind of like the misfits of baseball right now. So it's more important for us to stick together, and let's see if we surprise people."
Kela said he's developing a positive relationship with new manager Derek Shelton and likes his approach toward allowing players to speak their minds freely.
"He's a cool cat. He's chill and down to earth. He seems to be a players' coach and I appreciate that," Kela said. "I got to sit down and have some real one-on-one talks with him. I like how transparent he is. He tells it like it is even when I'm not too fond of it."
Kela enjoys that Shelton will embrace healthy confrontations.
"We've already had a couple of those instances. But nothing in a way that has made our relationship digress," Kela said. "He's cool. He's been around the game for so long. He's seen the ups and downs of the game. His experience is going to help push us forward. You look at his career; he's dealt with a drought before, and he's dealt with success."
If Richard Rodriguez shows the form he did after his IL stint, Kyle Crick goes back to pitching like he did in 2018 and Michael Feliz continues to make progress, the Pirate bullpen with Kela could be formidable.
"We have guys that have great stuff where you don't need to focus as much on analytics as much the need to be confident in their ability," Kela said. "When you look at our bullpen, we have guys nearly across the board from our middle relievers all through the closer who can throw high 90s or better."
Speaking of closer, Kela is aware of Shelton's preference to make the closer role an open competition this year. He's likely the favorite given his background, but he also values that there isn't a guarantee.
"I want to win ballgames more than anything. If I'm pitching well and the rest of my guys in the bullpen are pitching well, then that label of closer will work itself out."
Kela factored in that the new rule on relievers having to face a three-batter minimum could change how teams work their bullpens.
"Now you don't have time to be just a lefty specialist or only face righties," Kela said. "You've gotta face three batters and be a dog.
"It is going to separate individuals and show who really has good stuff. When you can't lean on a specialist role, we're going to find out if you're a real pitcher."
Kela knows he has a chance to solidify himself as an elite reliever. If he performs well, he can build a future for himself, whether in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.
That starts with days like Monday.
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