Kelly may be the least heralded member of the St. Louis rotation, but he has been the stopper. He stopped a seven-game losing streak with a victory against the Pirates on Aug. 1. He stopped a three-game losing streak with a victory over the Pirates on Sept. 1.
And here, with the Cardinals trailing Pittsburgh by 1 1/2 games at the beginning of the weekend series, another victory against the Pirates looked very much like a necessity.
Kelly delivered, limiting the Pirates to one run over six innings. His teammates came through as well, scoring their first decision of the season over Pittsburgh starter A. J. Burnett, battering the Pirates' bullpen in a 12-8 St. Louis victory.
"We needed a good outing by Joe Kelly, again, and he did that," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.
Kelly was not unhittable, but he was tough with runners on base. He stranded 10 Pirates over six innings and departed with a 5-1 lead.
"He pitched himself out of trouble a couple of times," Matheny said. "I thought he did a real nice job. He's earned that opportunity to work himself through it and he continues to get big outs when he needs to."
"It's just making pitches when I had to," Kelly said. "[The Pirates] are a good ballclub, especially seeing me just five days ago. They were all over my fastball early in the counts, getting base hits. They weren't particularly hitting them super-hard, but they were getting guys on.
"Curveball and slider, I used them both. The curveball, I brought that out against lefties, made some good pitches with that when I needed to. You just have to make good pitches when you need to, and that's what I tried to do all game today. Those guys are really good hitters, and I just tried to battle my butt off."
Asked if he thought about stopping St. Louis losing streaks, Kelly smiled and replied:
"No. I'm a relaxed guy, but I just try to compete when I get out there. We could win 10 in a row and I'm still going to be competing out there, fist pumping when I get big outs, stuff like that."
The Pirates, Cardinals and Reds are involved in baseball's best division race, with two games separating the three teams in the National League Central.
Matheny was asked about competing down the stretch with young pitchers taking major roles. The manager correctly suggested that this was nothing new for his club.
"We've been doing that all season," Matheny said. "It's what we have. That's the team that we are. We're proud of what the young guys are doing. You look at what that group of young pitchers was able to do coming out of the bullpen [Wednesday night], that 16-inning game in Cincinnati. That tells you, one: how talented they are, and how they've come along. We have faith in them and what they're doing."
The only unfortunate aspect to Kelly's work at this point is that it occurs only every fifth day. The Cardinals have recently had atypical struggles elsewhere in the rotation. Lance Lynn has lost five consecutive decisions. Adam Wainwright, the ace of the staff, was roughed up for 15 runs over two starts against the Reds.
The Cardinals have been exactly a .500 team since the All-Star break, in part because their starting pitching has not been as overwhelmingly effective as it was earlier in the season.
"Team performance is tied to the quality of starting pitching that it gets," Matheny said. "We understood that at the beginning and we understand that now. We're trying to work out the kinks and each guy is going through his own set of challenges. Now is not necessarily the time you want to see those ... but you can't ignore what this group has done from a starting pitching perspective. To say, 'That was then and this is now,' it's the same group of guys. The ability is there. The desire is there. It's just a matter of getting back to where we know it can be."
With Kelly's work, the Cardinals are already where they want to be.