Right-hander set to square off vs. Dodgers' Greinke in NLCS opener
ST. LOUIS -- It wasn't until June 5 that Joe Kelly made his first start of the 2013 season, having spent the first two months in the Cardinals' bullpen after falling short of claiming the fifth spot in the rotation out of Spring Training.
But even once he got that start, Kelly wasn't assured another. That took another month. He went 14 days between starts at one point before finally settling into the regular rotation, ultimately marching toward October by delivering consistent results every fifth day down the stretch.
And if that doesn't sound like the perfect path for the team's Game 1 starter in the National League Championship Series, then you haven't gotten to know this year's Cardinals team particularly well.
Kelly's understanding of the team concept -- taking his lumps and working hard at whatever role the club asked of him -- and his knack for pouncing on the opportunity to shine once it was presented to him embodies what this Cardinals team has done in reaching the postseason and advancing to a third consecutive NLCS.
As he takes the mound for Game 1 against Dodgers ace right-hander Zack Greinke in the 7:30 p.m. CT start on TBS and Postseason.TV, Kelly has a deep level of confidence from his manager, the respect and admiration of his teammates and, most important, the ball in his hand for the biggest start of his career.
Key stat: 5.56 ERA in four career postseason starts
Key stat: 2.28 ERA as a starter in regular season
At Busch Stadium
2013: 1 GS, 1-0, 2.84 ERA Career: 4 GS (5 G), 3-1, 2.28 ERA
2013: 8 GS (18 G), 5-4, 3.29 ERA Career: 18 GS (33 G), 8-7, 3.12 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 1 GS, 1-0, 2.84 ERA Career: 10 GS (12 G), 8-3, 3.10 ERA
2013: 1 GS (2 G), 1-0, 3.24 ERA Career:3 GS (4 G), 1-1, 3.72 ERA
Loves to face: Carlos Beltran, 1-for-7, 1 K Hates to face: Matt Holliday, 9-for-26, 2 HR
Loves to face: Mark Ellis, 0-for-7 Hates to face: Adrian Gonzalez, 4-for-7, 1 HR
Why he'll win: Led NL with .789 winning percentage in regular season
Why he'll win: Won 10 of past 12 decisions
Pitcher beware: Lost in St. Louis in 2011 postseason
Pitcher beware: Los Angeles averaged 6.5 runs per game in NLDS
Bottom line: Attack the strike zone, follow game plan
Bottom line: Don't let Dodgers' stars beat him
"Joe's earned this," Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny said on Thursday's workout day at Busch Stadium. "He started off this season, and I've said it many times, he showed us so much and earned our respect coming out of Spring Training in a fight for that fifth spot. Nothing that he did not do, but it worked out where he was going to be working out of the 'pen and getting very few opportunities.
"But when he did get the opportunities, he made the most of them and continued to come in here regardless of what his role was and tried to figure out how to help our team win."
What Kelly did from the point he was established in the rotation was some of the finest work in all of baseball.
After June 1, Kelly posted a 1.97 ERA, third among all Major League pitchers, behind only Miami phenom Jose Fernandez (1.50) and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw (1.82). He reeled off eight consecutive winning decisions, the longest such streak of any Cardinals pitcher this season, and he had a scoreless streak of 19 2/3 innings at one point.
Obviously, once Shelby Miller took the No. 5 spot coming out of Florida, Kelly didn't find himself a corner of the clubhouse and sulk his way into the season.
"My mindset was just come to the field ready every day, no matter what my job was that day," said Kelly, who had a no-decision in the Cardinals' Game 3 loss at Pittsburgh in the NL Division Series, allowing two earned runs on five hits in 5 2/3 innings. "Using me later in the game early in the year, and me being the long guy after that, you've got to come to the park mentally prepared to begin the game at any moment."
Along the way, he had stretches where he didn't pitch for a week or more, and even once he worked his way into the starting rotation, he had to play the role of fifth starter, being skipped a time or two.
But Kelly remained consistent in his approach, and his results.
"I mean, if you're not locked in and you get that opportunity, you might miss it," Kelly said. "So, I was just coming to the park and working my tail off and making sure when I got my chance that I was definitely ready for it."
It's a similar storyline to other young Cardinals stars in the postseason, be it Michael Wacha and his one-hit mastery his last two starts or first baseman Matt Adams' power production when the team needed it most.
For Wacha, seeing what Kelly had to go through to find his stride in the rotation shows what kind of competitor he is.
"It's unbelievable," Wacha said. "He's a heck of a pitcher, and he's just a team player, honestly. Whatever role they ask him to be in, whether it's long relief or whether somewhere in the bullpen or whether it's a start, he just takes it and he performs at the highest level."
Kelly, 25, said he and the rest of the younger set of Cardinals pitchers don't have to look far for role models when it comes to working hard and keeping their eye on the task at hand.
Not with Adam Wainwright anchoring the rotation and Chris Carpenter injured but still around, showing the way -- not to mention veteran All-Star catcher Yadier Molina putting down signs, there for every single pitch.
"To have that, I don't know, that's probably what the Cardinal organization is about," Kelly said. "To have guys like that around 24/7 makes it a little bit easier for us young guys when we get the chance for our time to pitch."
So, even as the October tournament rolls around, Kelly enters each start with confidence he can get it done, confidence that is felt around the clubhouse.
Not bad for the sixth starter in a five-man rotation when the season began.
As it turns out, the hard work and focus he had in April when he wasn't filling the role he wanted to fill has been a big factor in his ability to step into a crucial start in October.
"Those sorts of things pay off in the long run, especially on a winning team, if you just stay the course and you buy into the overall philosophy and realize that you're going to have your chance," Matheny said, "and when he got his chance, he made the most of it."