Cards' Kelly ready to relieve if called upon

St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Joe Kelly has tasted success both starting and relieving – though the latter was at least three years ago. If he is asked to return to the bullpen, he is prepared. His manager has been impressed.

Joe Kelly earned his selection by the St. Louis Cardinals as the 98th overall player taken in the 2009 draft (third round) by his performance as a standout closer for the University of California-Riverside. In fact, he left the Big West Conference school as its career saves leader.

Kelly at Riverside
Since then, the 24-year-old has primarily been a starting pitcher as a professional, with every outing except one in the last two seasons having been to open the game. After a partial season in Batavia in 2009, Kelly pitched with Quad Cities in 2010, then split 2011 between Palm Beach and Springfield. He made a dozen starts with Memphis this season before his June 10 call-up to St. Louis.

His string of consecutive starts may be ending soon, however. With the return of Jaime Garcia to the major league roster and to his rotation spot getting closer, something has to give. Kelly's ticket to remaining in the bigs versus rejoining the rotation at Triple-A Memphis may be in a return to relief.

No one on the Cardinals staff has yet broached the subject with the right-hander.

"When I'm scheduled to pitch, I pitch," Kelly said. "I don't look into that at all, really."

Even so, he understands the potential options and has no qualms about the potential of moving to the bullpen.

"I already have experience doing that," Kelly noted matter-of-factly.

From the very beginning of his time with the Cardinals, his rotation status was tenuous, driven more by a desire for him to get a consistent workload than necessarily his future starting potential. Greater confidence in him as a starter came later on.

"They had me be a starter at first to get my innings," Kelly noted. "After I had success, they said I would start one more year. Now, here I am (starting in the major leagues)."

He has performed beyond the expectation of most. In 11 starts with St. Louis, he has averaged 5 2/3 innings and allowed more than three runs only once, in his most recent outing – the blowout game against San Francisco. Kelly has a 3.47 ERA despite a 2-5 record and four no-decisions.

Just as a number of minor league player analysts wondered if Kelly would end up being a reliever in the majors, he didn't know himself at first. The pitcher noted that when he was drafted, he had no idea what role the Cardinals would have him play but that he was ready for anything asked of him.

His coaches may not have been entirely ready for him, however. With the get-ready quickly mindset of a reliever, Kelly surprised his pitching coaches in Class-A.

"When I became a regular starter with Quad Cities, I was warmed up and ready to go in 15 pitches," Kelly recalled. "The coaches thought I warmed up too fast and had me change my routine," he said with a slight grin on his face.

Though his power sinker is the pitch for which he has become most known, Kelly knew that alone was not going to be enough for him to prosper as a major leaguer.

"You need more than one pitch to survive here," he noted. "Even if you throw 98, that isn't going to be enough for most."

In his case, it was the re-discovery of another pitch upon which he learned he could rely in any situation.

"My changeup is my go-to pitch," he disclosed. "It was in Memphis (earlier this season) and it is here (in the majors), too."

That is a major difference between the Joe Kelly who logged a 5.01 ERA in 11 starts with Double-A Springfield to close last season and the Kelly who has been so successful with St. Louis this summer.

"I didn't have it in 2011," said Kelly, referring to his changeup.

Kelly was so serious about mastering the pitch that it became an almost-singular focus for a time.

"I knew to be successful, I had to have multiple dependable pitches," Kelly said. "I would throw 30-pitch bullpens, all of them changeups. I would experiment with different grips, but all were changeups."

I asked Kelly if one of his teammates had an especially good change that he chose to model his after. He responded to the negative.

"My hand is kind of small, so I couldn't emulate others," Kelly said.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny seems as much or more impressed by Kelly's willingness and ability to adjust on the mound than by his actual stuff.

"His very first start, we saw him get into trouble and watched him pitch out of it," the manager noted. "You see a toughness when he lets something slip away. He comes back and pitches better."

Kelly's athleticism also catches the eye of the coaches.

"He's a strong kid," Matheny said. "He's an athlete."

It is not just being athletic, but being able to leverage it in the heat of battle that sets some, like Kelly, apart.

"I've seen those guys who are really good athletes be able to make adjustments better than guys that aren't," the manager said. "Midstream, they are able to do things most guys wouldn't be able to do.

"For example, if you show up and your pitch isn't there, you've got to learn to survive with your second and third pitch. It seems like those guys who are competitors, one, and two, very athletic, they just seem to have a way of getting it done," Matheny said.

Kelly has definitely gotten it done as an interim starter for the 2012 Cardinals. The question ahead is whether he will be asked to try to continue that success as a reliever.

Whatever is next, Kelly will be ready.

For his part, manager Matheny sounds like he expects to be enjoying Kelly's pitching for a long time to come.

"You mix together how young he is, the velocity he is able to maintain in a game and you look at his body – still kind of growing – and he is going to be fun to watch," Matheny predicted.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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