CEDAR RAPIDS — She clutched it nervously in her hand as she watched the TV screen.
Julie Shebek of Cedar Rapids always sends Tootsie Roll Pops in the mail to her nephew, Mitch Keller. They have to be red, as cherry is Mitch’s favorite flavor.
As a good-luck charm, Shebek brought a red Tootsie Roll Pop with her to Buffalo Wild Wings in northeast Cedar Rapids as she and 40 or so other family members and friends gathered to cheer on their favorite Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher. The 23-year-old former Cedar Rapids Xavier prep made his major-league debut Monday night against the Cincinnati Reds at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark.
Keller’s fiancee, Clancy Haase, his parents, Al and Joni, brother, Jon, and four grandparents were part of a group of 40 to 50 family members and friends who made it to Ohio for this game. Former Xavier teammates and Dave Schemmel, his coach with the Saints, also were there.
Keller and the Pirates took the loss, 8-1.
“I told my brother that this is exciting, and it’s nerve wracking,” Shebek said. “But it’s for real.”
“I’m nervous as all get out,” added Jill McDermott of Cedar Rapids, another of Keller’s aunts cheering him on long distance. “I was walking the dog this morning, and tears just started coming out of my eyes. I hope he does well.”
Keller showed obvious jitters early, his pitches up in the zone regularly as he allowed six runs, including a grand slam to Jose Iglesias, in the first inning. But he also showed he belongs with three shutout innings after that, ending up allowing seven hits, walking two and striking out seven.
It is undetermined if he will remain with the Pirates or go back to Triple-A Indianapolis.
“Just an unreal experience,” Keller told reporters postgame. “Just taking the first step out of the dugout, just looking up at the stadium and just realizing where I was, I’m just trying to take it all in. It was just an unreal experience. I can’t describe it, really. From the pregame warm-up to the first warm-up pitches out there, the first inning, it didn’t go the way I wanted it to, but I thought I responded pretty well. Gave as many innings as I could.”
Keller retired 10 of the last 11 hitters he faced.
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“I think the first inning I was a little amped up,” Keller said. “My offspeed pitches weren’t as crisp as they were in the second, third and fourth innings there. I think that was the main thing there. I think my fastball was pretty much the same way it was the whole game. Just the offspeed stuff wasn’t as crisp as it usually is and as it was the following three innings.”
This isn’t the only big-time professional athlete in this tight-knit family. Doug McDermott is a forward for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and Keller’s first cousin.
“Our big sports family keeps expanding,” said Ben McDermott, Keller’s cousin, who delayed his flight home to Denver in order to watch this game at BWW.
McDermott and his brother, Adam, a basketball player at Coe College, grew up with Mitch and Jon Keller and always hung out together.
“I’m excited for him,” said Adam McDermott. “I know this has been his dream, and he has worked really hard to get there. We are very proud of him.”
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