Royals manager Ned Yost’s brow furled and crinkled with a hint of incredulity at the mere question, as if he took some minuscule level of offense.
It was momentary before he parted his lips and gave affirmation: “Of course!”
Yes, the Royals configured their post-All-Star break starting pitching rotation purposefully so that their young budding ace Brad Keller will start for the first time in his home state, 50 miles from where he went to high school and against the franchise he grew rooting for and watching regularly.
No, there was no coincidence.
Keller, a former eighth-round draft pick out of Flowery Branch High School in Georgia, will start for the Royals against his hometown Atlanta Braves on Wednesday night at SunTrust Park with a large contingent of his friends, family, former teammates and coaches expected to be in attendance.
“I’m really excited. It’s the team I grew up watching,” Keller said. “To be able to go out and pitch — it’s not Turner Field — but I’ve heard great things about SunTrust Park. So I’m excited.”
In his last four starts, Keller (6-9 overall) has gone 3-0, allowed 10 earned runs on 27 hits in 25 innings. He has also struck out 19 and walked nine. He’s posted a 3.60 ERA during that stretch.
Keller, 23, was born in the middle the Braves run of dominance that included 13 division titles in 14 years, five National League pennants and a World Series championship. Most of that came with Yost serving as a coach on Bobby Cox’s staff.
Keller fell in love with the Hall of Fame pitching rotation that included Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and, the pitcher he’s still tries to emulate, John Smoltz.
“It was a lot of fun to watch,” Keller said. “Smoltz is kind of my idol, but watching all three of those guys that’s what really got me into pitching. Those guys were good, and I wanted to be like that.”
The younger brother
Keller played varsity baseball at Flowery Branch as an eighth grader, but back then he was largely known as Brandon’s skinny little brother. Brandon Keller, who graduated three years ahead, played football and was the thicker and stronger of the two boys.
Austin Brown, now the junior varsity head coach and varsity assistant at Flowery Branch a senior, was a year older than Brandon and played varsity baseball when Brad was an eighth grader.
“I do joke about it sometimes,” Brown said. “When we were older, he did pitch, obviously, but also did a little first base. I played first base as well.
“We used to make him get the bucket. Basically, he was the workhorse of our group. If we had to get a bucket, Brad went and got the bucket. If we had to take the balls back up to the coaches hitting fungos, Brad took the balls. He got the typical eight grade/freshman treatment.”
Even though he’d been blessed with height, Brad Keller didn’t fill out until late in his high school career. Until his senior year, he remained the skinny, dangly kid who looked like a bag of limbs on the pitching mound.
The coaches at his old high school still use him as a “testament” to hard work and dedication.
Regardless of his physical prowess, he always maintained that intense desire to beat anyone across from him, the approach he identified with and/or copied from Smoltz.
“He was always willing to learn and to grow,” Brown said. “When you put him on the mound, no matter how he was, he was going to compete. Obviously, his velocity wasn’t what it is now. So he focused on the things he could control, which would be hitting your spots, stuff like that. But he was a competitor, He’s always been a competitor, and always will be a competitor. I think that was what helped him so much on the mound. Every single day, he competed.”
He came a long way
The summer before Brad Keller’s senior year at Flowery Branch, he had his eyes on pitching in college at Presbyterian.
He wanted to be as ready as possible, so he worked out religiously and started noticing bulging muscles in legs that had previously stretched the definition of legs.
He became so adept at long toss that just his throwing sessions turned into showstoppers.
Scott Myers, now East Jackson’s head coach, was Keller’s head coach at Flowery Branch, a school in a football-heavy region. The Atlanta Falcons’ training facility sits across the street from the high school’s baseball facility.
“I was telling somebody when I got to my new school, ‘You have got to see Keller long toss. It’s amazing,’” Myers said. “Just the arm strength, that’s a sight to see. I remember his senior year, him just winging it. We had to get cut-off guy for a catcher to get it back to him when he long tossed.”
Myers described Keller’s physical growth going into his senior year as “unparalleled.” Along with that, his fastball velocity went from topping out at 88-89 mph to hitting 96-97.
“Part of throwing 97 is God-given, but it also speaks as a big testament of his hard work as well,” Myers said. “He’s just put your nose down go to work type of kid. He really got into lifting, really worked his lower half.”
How hard Keller threw never impressed Myers nearly as much as how even-keeled demeanor on the mound. Nothing flustered him. Nothing knocked him off course. He was just as Myers phrased it: “Money.”
Keller didn’t think much of it when scouts started popping up regularly at his high school games. Royals scout Sean Gibbs was one of the first on Keller’s trail. But he always planned to go to college and play ball.
His new-found size and velocity made him a target for a lot of scouts. Major-league organizations started taking notice of the big-framed kid from Flowery Branch. It was a whirlwind final year of high school.
When Arizona drafted him in the eighth round, the Presbyterian coaches were one of the first calls Keller received. They advised him to take his opportunity, sign and turn professional.
He spent the first five years of his professional career in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ farm system. The Royals finally got their hands on Keller prior to last season via the Rule 5 draft. He went on to work his way from the bullpen into the starting rotation and tied for the team lead in wins.
Now, he’s viewed as one of the core players the Royals will build around going forward.
This season, the Royals made him their opening day starter. While his walks have been up this season (4.1 per nine innings), he enters this week tied for the team lead in wins (six), leads in innings pitched (119 1/3) and ranks second in strikeouts (91).
“He’s absolutely the kid you want to coach, you want your kids to emulate, you want your kids be like, the epitome of hard work, determination and God-given ability as well,” Myers said. “It was a pleasure. He’s just such a good kid. I think that speaks volumes. He’s getting what he deserves in life. It’s finally playing off.”
Flowery Branch has a population of less than 8,000, and as many as can get tickets might be in the ballpark on Wednesday to see just how far Keller has come since graduating in 2014.
Asked over the weekend if many people from his hometown were planning to come to the game, Keller replied, “Ha. My whole town. Literally, all my close friends, my high school, my coaches. I’m not from a very big town, so word has kind of spread all the way around already. A lot of people are coming Tuesday and Wednesday. I’m really excited and can’t wait.”