Merrill Kelly really wants to be a starting pitcher.
He also, like every other Minor League hurler, wants to pitch in the Major Leagues one day. Those goals may be at odds down the line, but for now, the causes are essentially united for the 24-year-old right-hander.
Trying to aid that effort, Kelly has added a slider to his repertoire. After a few years of development, he thinks it's on par with his fastball and changeup. He made believers of the Birmingham Barons on Saturday night, striking out six over seven two-hit innings in the Montgomery Biscuits' 3-0 victory.
"I'm not a big power guy, don't have the 95 mph arm when I want to, so I've always had to rely on mixing speeds and locating," said Kelly, the Rays' eighth-round pick in the 2010 Draft.
"The key for me is locating everything for strikes -- my fastball, slider and changeup. I kept guys off-balance pretty well tonight."
It was Kelly's fourth start and fifth appearance in his second go-round in the Southern League. He worked primarily in long relief last year, posting a 3.57 ERA over 88 1/3 innings in 32 appearances, including nine starts.
If Kelly (2-2) is going to continue climbing the professional ladder, it likely will be as a reliever -- an inevitability for many Minor League pitchers. Being a member of the Rays organization, distinguished in its depth of young starting pitchers, doesn't help.
It's the hill Kelly is trying to climb, though, and he showed Saturday why it's still worth it for Tampa Bay to trot him out there.
Marcus Semien singled with one out in the top of the first and Dan Black walked one out later. Kelly uncorked a wild pitch with Tyler Saladino at the plate, moving both runners into scoring position. Saladino worked the count full, only to flail over Kelly's changeup.
"One of the reasons I like starting better than relieving is if I'm going to have a rocky inning or two, it's going to be toward the beginning of the game," Kelly said. "Starting is fun for me. I'll do whatever I can to help us win, whether that's long relief or starting or whatever.
"The biggest adjustment is trying to keep myself locked in and not let myself question why they have me do this or do that. I just have to stay focused and pitch well, no matter the situation."
After ducking the Barons' first-inning threat, Kelly sailed through the rest of the game. He retired the side in order in the second, third, fifth and sixth innings, allowing just one baserunner in the fourth and seventh.
Kelly used his slider regularly as he tied a career high for strikeouts.
"I was really working on [the slider] last year and it was just kind of starting to show itself toward the end of the year," he said. "But I didn't have consistency with it. This year, I would say I'm consistently comfortable throwing it. That's probably the biggest difference.
"Last year, if I didn't have it early, I would dismiss it. This year, if I can't find it right away, I'll keep throwing it and it'll come around. It did tonight."
Rays No. 11 prospect Mikie Mahtook singled in the Biscuits' first run in the opening inning, finished 2-for-4 and scored once. Montgomery added two runs in the sixth and Marquis Fleming and Matt Nevarez pitched the eighth and ninth, respectively, to close out the win.