MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Mitch Keller learned at a young age that he could throw a baseball pretty hard. But so could his brother, Jon.
From the time the two pitchers were young, competitiveness has been a fuel to their fire. Mitch, the younger of the two, has kept that competitive spirit, and he said he hopes it leads to a chance to throw against major league batters on a full-time basis.
"We were really, really competitive. We wanted to beat each other all the time," Keller, 23, said of his days growing up playing baseball with his now-26-year-old brother, who pitched five years in the minors and retired in 2017 . "There was no letting you win. It was always just win, and that was it."
Though away from the game professionally, Jon still advises Mitch, and the two talk nearly every day. It helps keep the competitiveness burning, combining the two minds of two one-time youngsters who "played everywhere" on the diamond before learning they could both hurl a baseball with "big arms."
"He watches my starts and lets me know what I’ve got from a pitching side of things," the Indians pitcher said Sunday. "It’s cool to know he’s watching and that I can go to him for anything and he’ll give me his honest opinion."
Sometimes that honest opinion would come after bad outings — like when he couldn't make it to the second inning of two spring training starts or when he surrendered a three-run homer in the first inning of his first start with Indianapolis while ultimately allowing eight runs.
But he also gets feedback after the good games — like when he struck out eight batters and gave up just two hits against Louisville on Sunday in a no decision, a game the Indians wound up winning 2-1 in extras.
Feedback is good for Keller, who is working his way toward one day making the Pirates rotation.
It could be even more beneficial right now as he's seen three teammates get moved to Pittsburgh and make their MLB debuts this season.
"I saw my best friend Cole Tucker go up, which is really cool. I’m so happy for that guy," Keller said. "Just looking at that, you realize how close we are. I’ve just got to keep focused on being the best pitcher I can be and going from there."
It can be difficult, he admitted, to see teammates get their chances while he sits as the team's No. 1 and baseball's 16th-best prospect.
"It doesn’t make it any easier, that’s for sure," he said Sunday, one day after both Tucker and Bryan Reynolds recorded their first big league hits in their MLB debuts. "But you’re definitely locked in to what you’re trying to do that night. If you’re being the best you are, then you’ve got a good chance to be next."
Keller carries a 1-0 record through four starts with the Indians this season and has settled in nicely after five runs in his first two starts of the season, going just 8.2 innings combined. In his last two outings, he's struck out 13 would-be hitters while allowing just one run and giving up nine hits. He's sporting a 2.70 ERA through the first four starts of this year's Triple A campaign after going 3-2 with a 4.82 ERA with Indianapolis last year.
Keller was honored Monday as the International League Pitcher of the Week after posting a 1-0 record with a 0.79 ERA over two starts to go with 13 strikeouts and a .231 batting average against.
Known for his fastball, which can top speeds in the upper 90s, Keller has been working to hone his off-speed pitches. That, he said, has helped make his fastball even more potent.
"Being able to land my curve for a strike really helps keep hitters guessing," the slender 6-foot-2, 210-pound right hander said.
Keller said he's not only been working on his curve and a changeup, but he's begun mixing in a "slider-cutter type thing."
He's been more aware of his bullpen sessions and work in his throwing programs, too. That's something he really picked up in his first spring training invite this past preseason.
"It was a really cool experience being around all the starters for us. They’re doing unbelievable, which is awesome, so it was really cool just to see how they go about their game and what works for them, what to expect and just play games with them," Keller said of working with the Pirates starters. "The best thing for me was watching how they go about their day, how they do their throwing program and their work day and obviously how they compete on the mound."
It doesn't mean off days won't happen, though. But that's where his competitiveness has to come in, he said.
"If you don’t have it, you’re always trying to get it back," he said. "It’s always a learning experience on how to get it back sooner. You just take it into the mid-week bullpens that you have and your throwing programs and just try to figure out what wasn’t working."
On Sunday, Keller said he felt he had everything working.
"I’m trying to go pitch as many innings as I can whenever I go out there, go as deep into games as I can. Every pitch I had (Sunday) — fastball, changeup, curveball — they were all working," he said. "I’m just using that to my advantage, knowing I can throw any of those as a strike at any time. That’s huge."
He said he believes more days like that are to come.
TRIBE'S TOP HITTERS
Jake Elmore, INF - 8-for-17 (.470) with three doubles and four RBIs to go with a stolen base.
Erich Weiss, Utility - 4-for-12 (.333) with a triple, a home run and 3RBIs. Weiss was a double shy of the cycle in a 4-3 win on April 16.
TRIBE'S TOP PITCHERS
Top starting performance: JT Brubaker vs. Toledo on April 15: 5.1 innings pitched, four hits allowed, zero runs given up and five strikeouts in a winning effort despite exiting with an arm injury. Brubaker is 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA in two starts with 15 strikeouts. He's allowed just three runs on 15 hits.
Top reliever: Geoff Hartlieb. Hartlieb made two appearances over the last week. He's pitched 3.2 innings in relief, not allowing a single run on just three hits. He carries a 0.00 ERA through five appearances this season.
THE ROSTER MOVES/INJURY UPDATE
Here's the roster moves over the last week:
4/17: INF Kevin Kramer optioned by Pittsburgh (4/16), active in Indianapolis.
INF Alfredo Reyes transferred from Indianapolis to Double-A Altoona (travel day).
4/18: RHP Montana DuRapau transferred from Indianapolis to extended spring training.
RHP Dovydas Neverauskas ends major league rehab, optioned to Indianapolis.
4/19: OF Lonnie Chisenhall joins Indianapolis on major league rehab assignment.
4/20: OF Bryan Reynolds has contract selected by Pittsburgh.
INF Cole Tucker recalled by Pittsburgh.
INF Alfredo Reyes transferred from Double-A Altoona to Indianapolis.
Indianapolis went went 4-2 with a rainout over the last week. The Indians swept Toledo — 9-1, 4-3 and 8-7 — before the fourth game of the series was rained out. The Indians dropped two of three to Louisville before winning, 2-1, in extra innings Sunday. The Indians are now 10-6 on the season.
INDY FUN THING
The Indians hosted an egg hunt on Easter Sunday. Enjoy the cuteness:
— Indianapolis Indians (@indyindians) April 21, 2019
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