SEATTLE — The hapless Texas Rangers have left town taking two of four to manage a split following a 6-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners Thursday.
One of the few bright spots for the last-place Rangers, however, has been the emergence of closer Keone Kela, a local product who starred at West Seattle’s Chief Sealth High School.
“He could do that job for another 12 years,” veteran Texas reliever Jake Diekman said. “He’s always had a killer instinct where if he can control it on the mound, the guy is unhittable.”
After three years as a set-up man in the Rangers bullpen, Kela is a perfect 12-for-12 in save opportunities and has fanned 23 hitters in 20 innings despite a 4.42 earned-run average this season.
“I’m just comfortable,” the 25-year-old Kela said. “(I’m) treating it like any other inning in previous years and trying to go out there and have the same mindset, attack hitters and focus on getting the three outs one by one, and not letting the anxiety of the situation and the results take over the process, and just enjoy the process.”
The Mariners took Kela in the 29th round of the 2011 MLB draft, but Kela opted instead to head north to Snohomish County. He attended Everett Community College during the 2011-12 season and both pitched and played center field for the Trojans.
He hit .292 in 48 at-bats with five RBI and seven runs at Everett CC. But his true talent was on the mound where he was 2-2 with a pair of saves and a 2.07 ERA to go along with 48 strikeouts in 39 innings.
Kela said he only planned on spending a year at Everett, doing so to improve his draft stock and because he was offered a scholarship. The plan worked as the Rangers took him in the 12th round of the 2012 draft and he began his professional career.
The hard-throwing right-hander sailed quickly through the Texas farm system. Kela debuted as a 22-year-old straight from Class AA in 2015 when he fashioned a 7-5 record and a 2.39 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 68 appearances as the Rangers won the American League West.
Then came growing pains as Kela’s ERA ballooned to 6.09 despite a 5-1 record in 2016. He was briefly demoted to Class AAA to begin the 2017 season, but returned to go 4-1 with a 2.79 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 38 ⅔ innings.
But Kela seemed destined for the closer’s role.
“I think I had to grow into it,” Kela said. “I’ve always enjoyed pitching in high-pressure situations, and I just think that they’re defining moments.”
Kela finished off Texas’s 9-5 win Tuesday with a perfect ninth inning, though it was not a save situation. He earned the save despite giving up a run in the Rangers’ 7-6 win the following night as he worked out of trouble in the ninth.
“There have been situations where he’s given up a hit or walked a guy and he’s come back and got the ball back in the strike zone and got the job done,” Rangers manager Jeff Banister said. “I think that’s all part of the maturation process for him and where his pathway has been.”
Pitching the ninth has been a bit of a change for Kela. He saved five games in eight appearances at advanced Class A ball in 2014, and five more in 36 appearances later that season after he was promoted to Class AA.
But Kela had just six major-league saves coming into the season.
“To a degree it is (different), only because of the preparation, you know you have to get the last three,” Kela said. “Coming in during the seventh or eighth inning sometimes you know you have to do your job to hold it to be able to pass the ball forward. But yeah it’s a different mindset coming in knowing you have to close the game and bring it home.”
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