"I was like, 'Hey, I can pitch,'" Joe Kelly said. "I went to go pitch, and I threw seven innings. I threw a complete game, and I had never even pitched. I think my arm can do it. The mind is powerful."
That high school tripleheader is as reflective of Kelly as any moment in his young Major League career. All season, the 25-year-old has shifted and molded his role to fit whatever the Cardinals needed most.
Twice when a Cards starter made an early exit and the club needed someone to eat up innings, Kelly stretched out on a moment's notice to toss 62 and 79 pitches of relief, when his previous season high had topped out at 27 pitches. He plugged gaps in the rotation as a spot starter before eventually joining the group permanently and becoming St. Louis' winningest pitcher of the second half.
"He's doing great, there's no doubt," Carlos Beltran said. "Really giving us chances every time he pitches. We just have the same confidence in him as if it was [Adam] Wainwright and all the guys."
Kelly went 10-2 with a 2.18 ERA in his last 15 outings after joining the rotation on July 6. He halted the Cardinals' worst losing streak at seven games with six scoreless innings of three-hit ball against Pittsburgh on Aug. 1. Kelly snapped a three-game skid with a victory over the Pirates one month later, and seven of his 10 wins were immediately following a St. Louis loss.
Tale of the Tape: Game 3
|2013 regular season|
|Overall: 37 G, 15 GS, 10-5, 2.69 ERA, 44 BB, 79 SO||Overall: 26 GS, 16-8, 3.02 ERA, 63 BB, 163 SO|
|Key stat: Kelly posted a 2.07 ERA on the road in the regular season.||Key stat: Liriano went 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA at PNC Park this season.|
|At PNC Park|
|2013: 3 G, 2 GS, 2-0, 0.64 ERA
Career: 3 G, 2 GS, 2-0, 0.64 ERA
|2013: 11 GS, 8-1, 1.47 ERA
Career: 13 GS, 9-1, 1.55 ERA
|Against this opponent|
|2013: 6 G, 3 GS, 3-1, 2.53 ERA
Career: 8 G, 4 GS, 3-2, 3.38 ERA
|2013: 3 GS, 3-0, 0.75 ERA
Career: 4 GS, 4-0, 1.16 ERA
|Loves to face: Neil Walker, 2-for-11, 3 K
Hates to face: Russell Martin, 3-for-4, HR
|Loves to face: David Freese, 0-for-8
Hates to face: Matt Holliday, 4-for-10, 2B
|Why he'll win: In his three starts against the Pirates this season, Kelly allowed two runs in 18 innings (1.00 ERA).||Why he'll win: In four career starts, Liriano has won every time he's faced the Cardinals, posting a 1.16 ERA.|
|Pitcher beware: The Pirates are averaging 5.6 runs per game over their last five contests at PNC Park.||Pitcher beware: Liriano has a 4.50 ERA (13 earned runs in 26 innings) in the first inning this season.|
|Bottom line: Kelly has come in as a reliever in the postseason, but has never started a playoff game. He'll need to keep his composure and pitch the way he did in September, when he posted a 2.10 ERA.||Bottom line: Liriano needs to keep feeding on PNC Park's home cooking, continuing the dominance he showed in the NL Wild Card Game against a team he's had a lot of success against.|
And now the Cards are counting on Kelly again, on a much bigger stage, as they send him to the mound Sunday in Pittsburgh to start Game 3 of the National League Division Series (3:30 p.m. CT on TBS). After falling, 7-1, in Game 2, the Cardinals hope Kelly can once again serve as their stopper to shift the series' momentum back in their favor.
"It's going to be fun," Kelly said. "That's what playoff baseball is about. You dream about it as a little kid. It's going to be a great time. The atmosphere is going to be electric, obviously. And I think our side is looking forward to it."
Kelly intends to watch film of Lance Lynn's Game 2 start -- in which he allowed five runs on seven hits over 4 1/3 innings -- hoping to glean some useful information, like what kind of pitches the Bucs were connecting on.
"I'm kind of similar to Lance," Kelly said. "Obviously I've got a little bit different stuff. I kind of like to pick and choose and see how they're taking hacks at certain pitches and go with my game plan from there."
Kelly's numbers display a rare road advantage. He was 5-1 with a 2.07 ERA in 61 innings away from Busch Stadium during the regular season -- including limiting the Pirates to seven hits, six walks and one earned run in two starts at PNC Park -- compared with a 5-4 record and a 3.29 ERA through 63 innings at home.
"I haven't pitched a ton of games [at PNC Park]," Kelly said. "Obviously the dimensions are different. It's not like the NBA where every park is the same, every court is the same. It's hard to tell. Small sample size. It doesn't change in any way different than I pitch [in Pittsburgh] than at home."
Not that the easygoing Californian has a preference. Kelly believes in an even-keel approach; he doesn't get too high or too low for any outing, and that won't change in October.
"Even Hall of Famers struggle at some point in their career. It's baseball. It's not basketball, where if you're bigger, faster, stronger, you're going to win every time," Kelly said. "Like LeBron James, his bad game is going to be 15 points. Our bad game is going to look terrible compared to that. The LeBron James of baseball, Miguel Cabrera, can go 0-for-4 for four days. It's just baseball. It's a game of mostly luck."
With all the attention paid to St. Louis' young talent -- six rookie pitchers are on the postseason roster -- Kelly's youth can get lost in the shuffle. Entering just his second big league season, Kelly was part of the same 2009 Draft class as rookies Shelby Miller, Matt Adams, Trevor Rosenthal and Matt Carpenter, and he is still evolving with every outing.
"I just don't have the rookie title on me anymore, so I'm not in that group, but I'm the same age as these guys. We all played together," Kelly said. "We're still part of a core group of guys that are going to be here, and we're going to pitch for this team, and hopefully win a World Series in years to come.
Chad Thornburg is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.