Jordan Jones remembers walking back into the dugout on the humid day in Conway, South Carolina. He had just given up six runs in the first three innings of Washington’s Regional Final against UCONN. Knowing know of Jones’ pitches were working, Washington’s pitching coach Jason Kelly entrusted Jones to pick each pitch, whatever he felt comfortable with.
Kelly, no stranger to letting his players be themselves and devoting loads of faith into his team, didn’t change his tactics despite Washington being one win away from its first Super Regional.
Fueled by the confidence from his pitching coach, Jones headed back to the mound and allowed just a single hit over the next three innings. The Huskies’ offense caught up while Jones rediscovered his form and Washington went even further than a Super Regional that year. The underdog story of the 2018 College World Series, Washington rode its hot streak all the way to Omaha.
And they’d never be there without Kelly and his philosophy.
“He contributed a ton,” Jones said. “He’s just a super calm and relaxing guy. He knows what to see, what not to say in the moments. He builds the confidence in everyone and obviously he showed..
“He’s a players coach. He’s alway there for you, he’ll always have your back. He doesn’t bring people in to change the whole makeup of who you are. He let’s you be yourself while trying to form you into the best player you can possibly be.”
Kelly ended up winning D1Baseball’s Assistant Coach of the Year award in 2018 after the College World Series appearance.
Now, he’s in Tempe rather than Seattle. Kelly was hired by head coach Tracy Smith to replace Mike Cather after the 2019 season. Smith is hoping to see similar results that Washington’s staff of Jones, Joe DeMers, Lucas Knowles and Alex Hardy had in the Sun Devils.
“I’ve been able to observe him professionally, I was able to observe his pitching staffs, he’s been in my sights for a long time,” Smith said. “I think it made an immediate impact in the fall. He’s got a definite plan, a definite system that he follows...It’s worked out really, really well and I’m glad he’s finally here.”
Kelly will inherit a staff that has a lot of young blood. His biggest projects from the returners will be helping the talented arms of Boyd Vander Kooi and R.J. Dabovich find more consistency in their defined roles.
He’ll also work with the Sun Devils’ two new pitchers; Justin Fall and Tyler Thornton, who according to Kelly will both be in the starting rotation.
Fall, a tall lefty from Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, is listed by some draft sites as a top 100 prospect. Thornton earned All-American honors last year as a walk-on freshman at St. Mary’s.
Although as Jones noted, Kelly, whether it’s a returning Sun Devil or a fresh face to the program, he won’t be changing who they are.
“When you go into a new situation, I’ve done this a couple of times, there’s a couple of ways to handle it,” Kelly said. “You can kinda go in guns blazing and my way or the highway. Or you can really get to know these kids and find out how to communicate with them. It’s just like the classroom situation for a teacher. Not everyone is going to learn the same and you got to learn how to affect people in a way that makes them get better.”
Left-handed Cooper Benson, one of the freshman arms poised to have a role this season, has a history with Kelly. Growing up near Cal Poly, where Kelly once worked, Benson has known his pitching coach since he was 10. He mentioned similar things as most of the players did about Kelly.
“We’ve always had a close connection,” Benson said. “Everyone on the team really likes him and enjoys him, his philosophies on pitching. We all have fun and laugh at practice. Whatever you need work on he’s there. He’s really good (with) going to the player and saying ‘whatever you need I can help you with.’”
As seen in the 2019 season, the bats can place the Sun Devils in a position to get into the postseason. But without a solid pitching staff filled with reliable and confident arms it’s hard to make noise once you get there. Kelly understands the goal for Arizona State is to get back to College World Series and knows what it takes to get there.
“You want kids that want to win and play at that highest level,” Kelly said. “You have to have those things in your mind that you want to accomplish..If you get on a good run and get through the season that momentum builds and it becomes a really important part of your team. You can kind of smell that thing at the end, if you got a chance you go all hands on deck to get there. It’s a great experience.”
The added depth and talented arms ensure the pieces are there to make a run. It’s unlocking the top-tier potential that will be the difference in whether or not Arizona State gets there. And it’s Kelly’s job to make the key that will open the door to Omaha.