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Competitor Kelly keeps having fun in face of big game

Righty's personality felt in clubhouse, but Cards know he'll be all business in Game 3

ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals right-handed pitcher Joe Kelly will wonder at some point, maybe even obsess, about a Red Sox lineup that can either score in bunches, or if it isn't scoring, can drive up pitch counts. But not yet.

Kelly, 25, will start Game 3 of the World Series on Saturday night (6:30 p.m. CT air time on FOX, 7:07 first pitch) at Busch Stadium, with the Fall Classic tied at a game apiece. But the prospect of making such an important start isn't going to stop the loose Kelly from having a little fun. You can't get nervous if you never put down the controller.

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"I don't really like to lock in and focus on my start until the day of," Kelly said. "Like, the night before, I usually stay up playing video games all night -- competitive gaming, more 'Call of Duty.' You don't want to put too much emphasis and just mentally drain yourself of thinking, 'Man, this is a huge start, and you have to go out there and perform.' That's not the way to go about it."

The season started with Kelly sitting in the bullpen, hoping an inning would drop his way. Now he's as dependable as anyone in big games.

Kelly, 25, moved into the rotation in July, and he ended up stopping the three longest losing streaks of the Cardinals' season. He won't have to stop a bad streak in the Series. The Cards split the first two games, and they won Game 2 at Fenway Park on Thursday night behind fellow young sensation Michael Wacha. Kelly would've welcomed the chance to put the team back on track, but he certainly appreciates taking the mound on a positive note.

"Of course, it's always big to get a road win like that, especially after that Game 1 we played," Kelly said. "It's going to be fun, and we're all looking forward to going back home and getting that started.

"We've got the best fans in baseball, and those guys are awesome. We can't wait to play in front of our home crowd in this World Series. We know they're going to be pumped, and it's going to be a very, very live scene for us."

Tale of the Tape: Game 3
Joe Kelly
Jake Peavy
Red Sox
2013 regular season
Overall: 37 G, 15 GS, 10-5, 2.69 ERA, 44 BB, 79 K Overall: 23 GS, 12-5, 4.17 ERA, 36 BB, 121 K
Key stat: Kelly was actually better on the road (5-1, 2.07 ERA) than he was at Busch Stadium (5-4, 3.29 ERA) in the regular season. Key stat: Before this season, Peavy's only two postseason starts had come against the Cardinals. He was knocked around for eight and five runs in two NLDS starts with the Padres in 2005 and 2006.
At Busch Stadium
2013: 18 G, 8 GS, 5-4, 3.29 ERA, 21 BB, 38 K
Career: 33 G, 18 GS, 8-7, 3.12 ERA, 47 BB, 85 K
2013: n/a
Career: 3 GS, 1-2, 2.25 ERA, 4 BB, 18 K
Against this opponent
2013: n/a
Career: n/a
2013: n/a
Career: 9 GS, 3-4, 2.97 ERA, 18 BB, 61 K
Loves to face: Shane Victorino, 0-for-2, BB
Hates to face: Stephen Drew, 1-for-3, 3B, K
Loves to face: Yadier Molina, 4-for-22, 5 K
Hates to face: Carlos Beltran, 8-for-20, HR, 6 RBI, 4 BB
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: From June 1 to the end of the regular season, Kelly was third among all Major League pitchers with a 1.97 ERA, trailing only Jose Fernandez and Clayton Kershaw. Why he'll win: The Cards' offense has gone notably cold in several postseason games this fall, scoring three or fewer runs seven times.
Pitcher beware: Entering Thursday's Game 2, the Red Sox had outscored their opponents 53-21 in 11 playoff games, and Boston's 4.8 runs per game was the best mark of any club this October. Pitcher beware: Though he was knocked out of Game 1 with a rib injury, Beltran was medically cleared to play Thursday. Beltran, one of baseball's most successful postseason hitters, is 8-for-20 (.400) with three doubles, a triple and a homer in his career vs. Peavy.
Bottom line: Kelly, who admitted to being too "amped up" in his last outing, will need to maintain his even-keel approach and pitch like he did when he was the Cardinals' most consistent starter of the second half. Bottom line: Peavy will look to bounce back from a poor ALCS performance (seven earned runs in three innings) when he faces the Cards for the third time in October. A win on baseball's biggest stage Saturday could make Boston's midseason trade for Peavy well worth it.

It's a nice progression for Kelly, who was beaten out by another young pitcher, Shelby Miller, in the spring competition for a rotation spot. Now Miller is waiting for a chance to pitch in long relief, while Kelly, who ever so slightly traded steam on his fastball for control low in the strike zone, is starting on the big stage.

It's a responsibility that Kelly craves.

"Frankly, he was one of the guys this season where we might have a losing streak, he'd be the stopper," St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said. "He stepped up in a lot of big opportunities. In a lot of ways, he became somewhat the guy you could go to for a period of time. He sort of liked that role. He didn't back down."

Kelly went 10-5 with a 2.69 ERA in 37 games, including 15 starts, and he emerged as one of the key reasons the Cardinals won the National League Central and secured home-field advantage in the NL playoffs. On Aug. 1, Kelly breezed through six three-hit innings of a 13-0 victory over the Pirates to halt a Redbirds losing streak at seven games. He ended a three-game skid by vanquishing the Bucs -- allowing one run and four hits in six innings of a 7-2 victory -- on Sept. 1. The righty did it again to the Pirates on Sept. 8 by holding them to one run in six innings of a 12-8 victory that began the Cards' climb back into first place.

Kelly hasn't been dominant this postseason -- 0-1 with a 4.41 ERA in three starts -- but he's clearly trusted.

It took a while.

Last year as a rookie, Kelly went 5-7 with a 3.53 ERA in 107 innings over 24 games, including 16 starts, and he made seven relief appearances in the postseason (0-0, 2.35 ERA). It took the early part of this season for him to complete his development.

"You started to see it last year with Joe," Mozeliak said. "I do think when you go back to Spring Training, he was someone that really wanted to start. Unfortunately, there just wasn't enough room at the end to give him the opportunity. But when that finally did happen in midsummer, he just took advantage of it."

Kelly finished with 79 strikeouts against 44 walks in 124 innings, after fanning 108 against 36 walks in 107 innings last year. But this year, he forced 11 of his 17 double-play grounders after the All-Star break. Last year, Kelly forced just 10 all season. Opponents were held to a .217 batting average on 203 balls hit on the ground. Last year, it was considerably fewer balls hit along the ground (173) and a much higher average (.273).

Now Kelly will have to do it against a patient Red Sox lineup that runs up pitch counts and often backs pitchers into predictability that allows them to drive balls, not roll them along the infield grass.

"It's exactly what we thought," Kelly said. "These guys are very, very good hitters, and they're going to make you pay just like any other lineup in the playoffs. The team is stacked with power and speed. It ultimately comes down to just making pitches and getting ahead of these guys to get your team back in the dugout."

Mozeliak said Kelly has incorporated a sinker, but he doesn't use it with overwhelming frequency. The righty is able to keep his four-seam fastball down in the zone well enough to force weak contact.

"The difference between him now and what he was last year was he's consistently throwing more strikes and has a better idea of how to be more aggressive and have more command of that strike zone," Mozeliak said. "He's someone that gets a lot of balls in play for someone that throws in the mid-90s. But he does induce some ground balls, [he's] someone that works quick, and I think our defense behind him likes to play."

Kelly also brings a looseness that's appreciated when the spotlight signs brightest.

Before Game 6 of the NL Championship Series -- a 9-0 victory that sent the Cardinals to the Fall Classic -- Kelly and the Dodgers' Scott Van Slyke remained in front of their respective dugouts after the national anthem and had a staredown that lasted until first pitch. It's not hard to find video of Kelly doing whimsical dances while in the outfield before games. He confirmed that he can dunk a basketball -- but not windmill dunk from a standing position as legend has it -- although he made it a point to say he doesn't play pickup basketball, mainly because he doesn't want to draw the disapproval of the Cards' brass.

"He's a guy that is not afraid to be himself," manager Mike Matheny said. "You see the crazy dancing. He has fun. But when it gets his turn to pitch, there's not a better competitor out there. And I think Joe Kelly has found a place here where he has the freedom to do the same, because he's a funny guy. He enjoys life. He's all the time doing some things you wouldn't expect him to do.

"But when it comes down to pitching, he's ready to compete. He's a competitor."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.

St. Louis Cardinals, Joe Kelly