It’s still two weeks away, but if the Yucatan Lions and Montclova Steelers reach the Mexican Baseball League’s King Series, the frenetic sound of a large, raucous crowd might reverberate more than 2,700 miles away in Bakersfield.
And that’s a real possibility with former Bakersfield College standouts — Lions first baseman Art Charles and Steelers reliever Justin Kelly — playing key roles for the two teams that could be on a collision course.
“It’s very exciting to come off the mound and the GMs are excited for you, and the fans are excited,” said Kelly, who is teammates with former Cal State Bakersfield infielder Oscar Sanay. As a utility player, Sanay is batting .395 with one home run and 10 RBIs in 16 games.
“(The playoffs are) really one of the few times you get to play, and you’re not playing for yourself, you’re playing for a city, you’re playing for a community, you’re playing for an ownership and you don’t want to let them down. You want to bring that home to them because they’ve never won a championship and you want to be a part of the first one. Being part of something bigger than yourself has been awesome.”
As a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen, Kelly's consistency has helped Montclova reach the playoffs this year, as he's posted a 2.20 ERA in 28 games.
“This year has been the biggest learning experience for me,” said Kelly, whose team is tied 2-2 in its first-round series against the Sultans of Monterrey. “Not only in my life, but with baseball. To be able to adjust and coming out here … I’m just trying to do my part. I may not like my role all the time, but it’s not my decision to make. I can only control what I can, and I’m just trying to finish strong.”
Charles is hoping to do the same, something he wasn’t able to accomplish last season when a torn labrum limited him to just 13 games in the second half of the season. Although he wasn’t 100 percent, Charles still had 12 home runs and 48 RBIs last year, helping his team to its first MBL title since 2006.
He had surgery in January and missed 83 of 120 games this season, but was still one of Yucatan’s most productive hitters once healthy. In his second year with the team, the left-handed first baseman batted .328 with nine home runs and 28 RBIs.
“It was a long and tough process, as well as frustrating, but I’m playing now, and at the most important time of the season.” said Charles, who had an RBI in each of the Lions’ first-round playoff victories over the Oaxaca Warriors last week.
Yucatan advanced to the South Division championship on Sunday, closing out the series with a 3-1 victory over the Warriors in Game 5 of the seven-game series.
“My main focus was to be ready to play and help my team in the playoffs to win another championship,” said Charles, 28, who starred at Ridgeview High before playing two seasons at BC. He was drafted in the 20th round of the 2010 MLB Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays and played parts of seven seasons of affiliated baseball with three other teams before being released by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017.
“With God, the hard work I put in, my teammates and the help of all the staff, I’ve been playing well and trying to do my job to help the team.”
Kelly, who starred at Stockdale and BC before being drafted as a senior at UC Santa Barbara by the Angels in the 33rd round of the 2016 MLB Draft, has played an important role in his first season with Montclova.
He faced just one batter — and made just two pitches — in the seventh inning of Montclova’s 12-3 loss to Monterrey in Game 1 of their series, giving up an RBI-single to one of the Sultans top left-handed hitters, Felix Perez, who has 30 home runs and 94 RBIs this season.
“The hit I gave up was a 1-0 slider,” said Kelly. “It wasn’t a bad pitch, he just kind of hit it off the end of the bat into right field. It’s a hit, but he didn’t get a good piece of it, and they ended up scoring a run.
“But Monterrey has a lot of lefties, so you gotta be ready. I’ve been warming up for situations and stuff every game. I don’t know if that situation is going to come around, but it’s just every day being ready.”
Four days later, Kelly was brought in to face another big left-handed bat, Victor Mendoza, who is hitting .375 with 26 home runs and 101 RBIs. This time Kelly enticed Mendoza to fly out and the Steelers won 7-2.
“I’ve been used in small segments, like a batter here or two,” said Kelly, who has only given up one run in his last nine appearances. “I got into a decent run. The number one thing is you have to come in ready. You don’t have many pitches to work with, so it’s been an adjustment to come in and pitch to one batter and be ready to go.”
And should Kelly have to face Charles in the King Series?
“I’ve had that conversation before with my dad and (Stockdale coach) Greg Showers, how cool that would be to face him in that situation,” Kelly said. “The last time I faced him was at a BC alumni game. It would be a cool full-circle moment to face him seven years later for all the marbles.”
Charles added, “I think it would be super cool to be able to face him. It would definitely be a moment to remember as well as one that no one could have anticipated.
“Baseball is a small world and community that will never cease to amaze you. So to face Justin in the finals would be great. We are both competitors, believe in our abilities and want to do our jobs to help our teams win. So I know we would have some great battles.”