In the latest sign that the Red Sox, under the leadership of president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, are running their roster as a strict meritocracy, Kelly was optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket after allowing seven runs on seven hits and three walks and failing to complete the third inning on Wednesday night in a 13-9 loss to the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.
The wretched outing followed a start on Friday night in Toronto in which Kelly gave up five runs on nine hits and three walks in only 4⅔ innings.
"He's blessed with a golden arm and tremendous stuff, but the execution of it has not been as consistent," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "So, we have made a move. We've optioned him back to Pawtucket in the pursuit to get him back on track."
The Red Sox will recall reliever Noe Ramirez from Triple-A to take Kelly's roster spot. The club has not decided how it will fill the vacancy in the starting rotation, although Farrell noted that off days Monday and June 9 will prevent the Red Sox from needing a fifth starter until at least June 14.
Kelly, who has an 8.46 ERA in six starts, said he was "a little bit" surprised by the swiftness of the demotion. After all, the Red Sox recently moved long-standing starter Clay Buchholz to the bullpen to accommodate lefty Eduardo Rodriguez's return from the disabled list, a sign that perhaps they were content with Kelly at the back of the rotation.
"Obviously, I didn't see it coming," Kelly said. "But you know, it's the move they decided to make. I'm just going to go down there and try to continue to get better at what I do with commanding the baseball and just work on all my stuff and try to get back as soon as I can."
Kelly summed up his problems with two words: location and command.
"Maybe trying to do too much out there, especially when we're scoring all those runs," Kelly said. "I didn't go out and do my job like I was supposed to, you know? The team got us right back in, and I was giving it right back. Obviously, it wasn't fun to pitch that way, but you just got to take it and work on your stuff and try to get better for next time."
Since spring training, Dombrowski has empowered Farrell to dole out playing time based strictly on performance, not contract status. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval and left fielder Rusney Castillo lost starting jobs in March to less-heralded players Travis Shaw and Brock Holt. Christian Vazquez replaced fellow catcher Blake Swihart in early April, as soon as it was clear he was recovered from Tommy John elbow surgery. And Buchholz, the Red Sox's longest-tenured pitcher, was bounced from the rotation after posting a 6.35 ERA in 10 starts.
Buchholz entered in relief on Wednesday night and gave up four runs (three earned) on three hits and four walks in 3⅓ innings, though he appeared to be squeezed by a tight strike zone from plate umpire Doug Eddings.
Asked if he believed Kelly's demotion would pave his way back to the rotation, Buchholz said he hasn't been approached by Farrell or pitching coach Carl Willis.
"You all will probably know before I do," Buchholz said. "I'll go to work either way."