Remember 2013 in the middle of June when the Cardinals rotation needed some rescuing? Joe Kelly came flying in and played hero. He went 5-0 in August and carried his stellar starting pitching into October and was reliable after being relegated to the bullpen for the better part of the first half of 2013. The California native missed the first significant chunk of playing time in his career in 2014 due to a hamstring strain and has returned to the rotation. Once again, as the middle of July pushes through, the Cardinals are asking Kelly to settle down a moving rotation that has been steady so far this season yet could use an oil change and a few new parts to its engine. With the losses of Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia to injury and Shelby Miller to the bullpen, the once sturdy rotation looks frayed and vulnerable. Young Carlos Martinez has shown promise and a raw young attitude in his first five starts while Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn are bolstering the group with innings and results. Kelly’s job is to prove to Cardinals management that a huge trade for a name like David Price isn’t needed and that the rotation doesn’t need that many repairs. Kelly is back in unlikely hero mode.
Now, it would be labeled crazy to think of a guy who has never pitched a full season as a starter and rarely goes past the six inning mark as a hero to a rotation. Kelly’s trademark is throwing a lot of pitches, rarely striking out batters in the double digits and occasionally lighting gasoline fires around the hearts and nerve linings of Cardinal Nation. He doesn’t always make it easy to watch. Kelly pitches to contact and relies on his defense with his heavy use of the sinker ball and four seam fastball. He is a ground ball specialist who lives and dies on the Batted Ball in Play stat. Kelly isn’t going to crack the top five of MLB Network’s starters to watch or become a legendary in the baseball card mafia community. His career stats run like this..
|162 Game Avg.||11||9||.567||3.05||44||24||0||0||0||171||175||68||58||13||58||4||113||7||3.91||1.362|
Looking at those stats makes it hard to judge whether a guy can handle the mantle of hero, but in this case the label sticks because of what Kelly can do when called into action. The legitimacy of his ability in an entire season will be left up to the 2015 season, but let’s focus on what he can do in a half season because for the third straight season, Kelly is being dispatched into the rotation in a time of need. In 2012, he took Chris Carpenter‘s spot. In 2013, he took a few reps for fallen intern starter John Gast and never left. In 2014, Kelly missed over two months and returns in a time of need. On Saturday against a fearsome Los Angeles Dodgers lineup, Kelly gave the Cards exactly what they needed. A commanding start to rest the bullpen and a legitimate sign that his legs are under him and ready for the long haul.
As my fellow Cardinals scribe Corey Rudd(find him on Twitter, @CoreyRudd) noted on Friday night, there were signs that Kelly wasn’t 100% healthy. His motion and follow through on Sunday against Milwaukee left doubts in many minds. Yesterday, Kelly silenced the critics and was sharper than ever. He matched his career high in innings with seven. Kelly got ahead in the count against very good hitters like Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Rameriz. He kept the lineup off balance and retired the last 13 hitters he faced. After throwing a lot of pitches in the 3rd and 4th inning, Kelly settled and breezed through the last three innings. He struck out 4 and walked only one, with 13 groundball outs scattered through the game and a pair of double plays. Kelly was in command at the most important juncture of Saturday’s game and the Cards need Kelly to get better and better.
Kelly can be that savior again in 2014. A quiet reliable presence in a rotation in need of stability on a team that can’t always score runs in bunches. On Saturday, Kelly outpitched Zach Greinke in the same manner Kelly outpitched Clayton Kershaw on August 6, 2013. On a day where a game could be gained in the suddenly competitive National League Central Division, Kelly made the early four run lead stand up.
The underrated arms like Kelly are what make rotations run long and strong in a regular season playoff hunt. Joe will never win the Cy Young or reach the Sportscenter highlight reel(unless he’s on the basepaths), but he can be a quiet force in this 2014 Cardinals rotation as they do battle for the division title. He starts next on Saturday against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Thanks for reading and enjoy tonight’s ESPN game between the Cards and Dodgers as Carlos Martinez faces off against Kershaw with the hometeam going for the sweep.
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