By: Greg Tartaglia – Record Sports
John Kelly is living life in the acceleration lane.
When the 5-foot-11 right-hander began the spring, he was an all-league shortstop on a perennially strong Rutherford baseball team. By June, he was one of North Jersey’s hottest pitching recruits from the Class of 2018.
How exactly did his career – and fastball – gain speed so quickly?
“My dad looked at my windup and said, ‘If you just use your legs and your hips a little bit more, you can easily get a lot more velocity’,” the rising senior said. “I was able to throw strikes that way, and the ball just started flying out of my hand.
“At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t really much of a pitcher,” Kelly said. “I closed maybe two or three games last year.”
That was how Rutherford coach Carmen Spina initially planned to use him for 2017.
“John is the best athlete on our team, and as our starting shortstop, he’s kind of the glue that solidifies our infield defense,” said Spina, who noted that Kelly had thrown in the “upper 80s” as a closer in the preseason.
“But when he got in those games [as a starting pitcher], he was just blowing away guys on the other team,” the coach said. “We worked his pitch count up gradually, and by the end of May, he just took off and kept getting better and better every start.”
The big breakthrough came on May 16 in a 2-0 win at Glen Rock, which allowed the Bulldogs to clinch a share of the NJIC Colonial Division title. Kelly threw a four-hit shutout, fanned 14 and did not walk a batter.
A three-hit shutout of Parsippany in the North 2, Group 2 state tournament followed. He gutted out 6 ⅔ against Hanover Park in the sectional semifinals, striking out 11 before reaching the pitch-count limit, and Rutherford went on to win in 11 innings.
Kelly’s final line for the spring was 4-1 with a 1.20 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 35 innings pitched.
“After our season ended, he was invited to play in the Garden State Underclass Games at Diamond Nation [in Flemington],” Spina said. “That was where he topped out throwing 93 miles an hour and was consistently throwing 91. Since then, he’s been getting tons of attention from D-I schools.”
Kelly counted 25 that have shown interest. He got even more exposure by competing in the World Wood Bat Association (WWBA) 17U National Championships in Cartersville, Ga., earlier this month with his club team, Wladyka Baseball.
His coach with that organization is another Bulldogs shortstop/pitcher who played Division I baseball at St. John’s, Jim Wladyka (Rutherford Class of 2001).
“He’s the reason why I’ve been getting recruited by any schools now,” Kelly said. “I had [drawn] no interest before the underclass game, and he was the one that got me in there.”
Kelly’s top two college choices at the moment are Maryland and Virginia Tech. On his academic docket is kinesiology, which he hopes to study on the way to becoming a physical therapist.
He remains a top-drawer hitter, having batted .391 (25-for-64) with two home runs and 22 RBI this year, and he enjoys the offensive aspect of the game.
Pitching, though, seems to be the skill that will merge his career into the fast lane.
“I tried getting recruited as a shortstop-hitter, but it didn’t really work out,” Kelly said. “And I’m not going to pass up an opportunity to go to a great school just because I didn’t want to put the bat down.”