Utilityman Kelly does quite a lot as ‘25th player’ for Tigers

Detroit Tigers Miguel Cabrera, left, and Prince Fielder, right, congratulate Don Kelly after his three-run home run during the sixth inning against the Cleveland Indians on Sunday in Detroit.
Detroit Tigers Miguel Cabrera, left, and Prince Fielder, right, congratulate Don Kelly after his three-run home run during the sixth inning against the Cleveland Indians on Sunday in Detroit.

DETROIT — Jim Leyland likes Don Kelly. Who wouldn’t? He’s good people.

Leyland, the Detroit manager, is a tad sensitive to any suggestion that Kelly is the Tigers’ 25th man, and has been for awhile now, solely because the skipper is fond of him.

“I’m a little tired of reading and hearing that [stuff],” Leyland said Sunday after Kelly’s three-run homer in the sixth inning produced a 4-1 win over Cleveland. “You know, that Donnie Kelley’s here or Jose Valverde is the closer because I like them. Like that would be my reason.

“Look, go back to spring. To be honest, it was pretty close, and if Quintin Berry plays both outfield and infield like Kelly then, with his speed, he probably would have been the one to make the club. But he didn’t do both things. So who’s a better option than Don Kelly?”

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He was the option Sunday because he had put up some pretty good numbers — 6-for-17, .353 — in the past against Tribe ace Justin Masterson.

This time, Kelly walked twice and trotted around the bases once after a towering shot into the tunnel in right when Masterson went down and in with a two-strike slider. Kelly just put his best golf swing on the ankle-high offering and drove it out.

It made a winner of Jose Alvarez, the once-and-future Mud Hen, in his major league debut. It also gave the Tigers a sweep of the fading Indians and a 5½-game cushion in the AL Central.

Detroit is the team of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

Sometimes the difference between good teams and special teams may be those days and nights that a Jose Alvarez or a Don Kelly — or both — step up.

“It always makes me feel good to contribute,” Kelly said. “Masterson is tough. It’s not a comfortable at-bat. He has a sinker moving all over the place, and his fastball is hitting 95 [mph]. A couple guys on base, two strikes, I’m just trying to do anything good.”

This jack-of-all-trades masters one every now and then. He sure seems to know how to pick his spots.

“Well, if I could pick them I’d have more of them,” Kelly said, laughing. “When you’re in a utility role you’re not trying to be the guy. You just try to stay within yourself and do anything you can to help. Heck, at the time, drawing that walk in the second inning was just as big because it moved two guys up, and we scored on Alex [Avila’s] sacrifice fly.”

Kelly is the only active major leaguer to have played all nine positions, plus DH, during his career. Somebody once wrote of Kelly that “getting rid of him would be like letting nine mediocre players walk away.”

I think there’s a compliment in there somewhere. Maybe.

The Tigers have let Kelly — a longtime Toledo fan favorite, especially in 2009 when he hit .331 in 105 games for the Hens — walk away several times. On almost every occasion he has cleared waivers, meaning no interest from other teams, and he keeps walking back.

Kelly hit .186 last season and was cut loose after the Tigers’ march to the World Series. No takers, so back he came to win a roster spot by a whisker this past spring.

Sunday’s performance lifted his current average to .198. So, no, his is not one of the livelier bats in baseball.

But he has been filling in nicely since centerfielder Austin Jackson went on the disabled list on May 12. Fourteen of Kelly’s 23 starts this year have come in that stretch. He does all the little things and, every now and then, something big too.

His largest moment may have been when he found himself in the starting lineup in the deciding game of the 2011 ALDS at Yankee Stadium and homered off Ivan Nova to propel Detroit to a 3-2 victory.

Sunday’s tie-breaker against Masterson wasn’t bad either.

“We threw Kelly in against a tough righty,” Leyland said. “Masterson is no donkey. He’s a No. 1 guy. And Donnie got us a huge hit. He’s a pretty nice 25th player, eh?”

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: or 419-724-6398.