"At first," Kelly says now, "I'm like, 'What's going on here? What are these guys looking for?' It's kind of nerve-wracking."
What Kelly came to learn was that this was his indoctrination, unofficially but meaningfully, into a bonding ritual that began, years ago, at the behest of Chris Carpenter, whose presence still courses through the veins of this stellar Cardinals staff, even as the physical toll of his 2,327 1/3 Major League innings prevents him from participation in this October run.
We hear often, especially lately, about "The Cardinal Way," the lofty standard of professionalism and performance that has come to define St. Louis' championship culture. But the Cards' starters follow an offshoot of that organizational structure that ought to be known as "The Carpenter Way."
It emanates out of the example set by the 6-foot-6 right-hander, whose raging competitive fire and leadership have lingering effects in these parts.
"The things he's done and experienced, the career he's had, the knowledge he has in every aspect of the game," says veteran starter Jake Westbrook, "all these young kids can get all the information they need from him. Because he's done a lot, and he's done it well."
Carpenter first came up with the Blue Jays, thrust into a rotation with Roger Clemens, Pat Hentgen and Woody Williams. He learned, quite quickly, what it means to carry yourself with conviction, what it takes to physically prepare yourself to take the ball and go deep every fifth day, what being a good teammate entails.
When Carpenter recovered from labrum surgery and was first activated by the Cardinals in 2004, he brought all those ideals with him. And while his on-field impact was obvious -- the National League Cy Young Award season in 2005, the two top three Cy Young Award finishes in '06 and '09, the 10 postseason victories -- the seeds of Carpenter's off-field import were sewn the day he started instructing his rotation mates to watch each other's bullpen sessions.
"It was just something I thought about, talked to some of the other starters about," Carpenter says. "At the time, it was [pitching coach Dave Duncan] and [bullpen coach] Marty Mason down there. But we're just as good a teacher as anyone. We know ourselves, we know each other, we watch each other every single day, we play catch with each other, we know each other's arm angles. So if you pay attention and you watch, you can learn anything, and you can help anybody."
In an ever-changing business in which injuries and contracts and shuffling and shifting needs hamper stability, "The Carpenter Way" has been a constant for the better part of a decade for a Cards team that has been remarkable in terms of its ability to keep churning out quality arms.
Never has that positive player development process been more apparent than this season, when the losses of Carpenter and Jaime Garcia and the performance decline of Westbrook were offset by the emergence of Kelly, Shelby Miller and, of course, Michael Wacha, whose rookie October output has been downright historic.
Talent prevails, ultimately. But the remarkable poise, professionalism and polish displayed by these young men at this nascent stage of their career is a credit, in large measure, to the boilerplate Carpenter established.
"If Carp tells you to do something, you pretty much do it," Miller says. "He throws his [bullpen sessions] full-on, like he's in a game. I didn't used to do that. But now I take them just as seriously as he does, just trying to pick up on what makes him successful."
Plagued by shoulder numbness related to his longtime issues with thoracic outlet syndrome, the 38-year-old Carpenter hasn't been able to throw a competitive pitch this season. Rather than retreat into retirement, though, he's remained a regular on the road and in the clubhouse, applying his talents in another facet.
The Cardinals thought they already knew everything there was to know about Carpenter, but the input he's provided despite his personal physical frustrations has displayed yet another dimension to him.
"When I think of Chris Carpenter, he embodies everything that you want out of a player," general manager John Mozeliak says. "To be on the DL all year but still want to be around and contribute the way he has speaks volumes about the type of person he is. We always knew he was a competitor, always knew he wanted the ball, always knew he's a winner. But now we know he's not only a winner and a great competitor, but a great mentor."
These games are killing Carpenter, whose intensity was always evident when he was on the mound and who now must swallow all that energy while standing in the dugout. He jokes that his in-game heartbeat, rapid to begin with, is worse than it's ever been.
"It's amazing," Carpenter says. "I was telling Mr. [Bill] DeWitt [Jr.] and his wife and some of the other owners in L.A., after Game 4 [of the NL Championship Series], 'I don't know if I can do this anymore.' Every game is 2-1, 3-1, 4-2, and one swing can change the game. I'm on the bench, I'm pacing, I'm hiding, all kinds of things. It's different not being on the field and able to contribute, I'll tell you that."
But whether he acknowledges it or not, Carpenter is contributing. That's evident in the way the other members of the staff -- from staff ace Adam Wainwright on down -- point to him as a model and inspiration for what they want to be or become, and it's evident in the camaraderie among the starters that was built, in part, by the simple but strategic bullpen session protocol.
"One of the first things that stood out when I got over here [in 2009] was how close the starting pitchers were," Westbrook says. "It was a pretty neat deal, and I bought into it right away. It makes you a closer team within a team and it only makes you better, because you can discuss things and see things that maybe you don't feel. It can only make you better."
This is "The Carpenter Way," and it extends now into other terrains (when Kyle Lohse left in free agency and signed with the Brewers earlier this year, he instituted the bullpen idea with the Milwaukee staff) and lingers with a new generation of Cards starters.
Carpenter will physically remain with the Cardinals in retirement in some official capacity ("He knows the door is always open," Mozeliak says), but for now, he just wants to enjoy this experience for all it's worth. Still in uniform, still playing catch, still taking in the exemplary starting pitching standard that he helped create.
"It's tradition, and it's what they do here," Kelly said. "And he's behind it, 100 percent."