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Opportunity Knocks, Kelly Answers

Don’t count out Don Kelly. He’s played a lot of years in the minor leagues. He’s been cut numerous times from major league rosters. He’s been in his share of batting slumps.

But he keeps coming back.

After getting a new contract with the Tigers in January and being a postseason hero in 2011, he told me for an interview in the Pittsburgh Sports Report he still recognized himself as a role player who needs to be prepared for when opportunities are presented to help his team win games.

The opportunity presented itself on Sunday, and Kelly came though with his first walk-off hit of his career on baseball’s biggest stage.

But he almost didn’t get this chance.

By the beginning of August, the Mt. Lebanon native and Point Park University alum was hitting just .175. for the Detroit Tigers. Despite his contract, being one of his manager Jim Leyland’s favorite players and his previous postseason success, he was put on the waiver wire.

Kelly cleared waivers, and was assigned to AAA Toledo in August. He only batted .233 for the Mud Hens, but found his way back onto the Tigers roster in September once again for his value as a defensive replacement and pinch runner.

When it came time for Leyland to finalize his 25-man roster for the postseason, the versatile and resilient Kelly made the cut.

On Sunday he was inserted into the game as a pinch runner in the 8th inning after Delmon Young’s base hit. Kelly moved to 3rd base with two outs, and after a wild pitch he raced home to tie the game. Not being used for his defense, Kelly remained in the game in Young’s DH spot — fifth in the TIgers lineup. That’s in the spot right behind Detroit’s two big hitters, triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

Sure enough, as the game remained tied 4-4, the top of the Tigers lineup made some noise in the bottom of the 9th.

Cabrera belted a liner that gave the Tigers runners at the corners with just one out. Fielder stepped to the plate. Would the A’s pitch to Fielder?

Of course not.

Not with a .175 hitter coming up. Not with a guy who had never driven in a go-ahead run in the seventh inning or later in a major-league game. In his career, Kelly managed just three sacrifice flies in 2,877 plate appearances.

As I watched this unfold, I couldn’t help but think of Kelly telling me in the winter about being ready for moments like this.

The bases were loaded.

Opportunity knocked.

In his postgame interview, Kelly said he came up to the plate looking for a fastball from the A’s Grant Balfour. He took the first pitch, a breaking ball for strike one. The next pitch he got what he wanted, a 93-mph fastball which he drove deep enough to clinch the game and a walk-off win that give the Tigers a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five American League Divisional Series that now heads to Oakland.

And for the second straight October, Kelly is making the most of his opportunities.

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