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Joe Kelly, official starter? Not yet. On fire? Absolutely.

Joe Kelly might not officially be a member of the Cards' rotation, but he's as hot a starter as they have

ST. LOUIS -- For the past month, right-hander Joe Kelly has been the Cardinals' most effective starter. Surely, he has pitched well enough to officially earn a spot in the club's rotation. Right, Mike Matheny?  


 "Joe did a nice job last time," the Cardinals manager said Monday. "So we're excited to get him back out there."


If that's not quite a yes, maybe the answer is obvious enough an absolute response is not necessary. Kelly doesn't need one.


Do you believe you're a starter now? "Yes."


Is that because the skipper brought you in and told you or because you see your name on the schedule every fifth day? "Yeah, more that," Kelly said.


Kelly doesn't need any more confirmation than that. In a role that has been difficult to define at times this season, he has gone about his business better than can be expected for a 25-year-old in his second big league season. After pitching out of the bullpen in 21 of his first 22 outings, Kelly has made four starts and put up some impressive numbers.


He hasn't allowed a run in either of his past two starts, lowering his ERA as a starter to 1.90 since the end of June. Though he has wanted to start all season -- understandably so after making 16 starts last season with a decent-enough 3.74 ERA -- Kelly has said nothing but the right things.


"I just like to get out there and compete" and "I'll do whatever I can to help this team" are standard responses when asked about his job preference.


Kelly will be asked to do a lot Tuesday night, much like he was in his last start. After Adam Wainwright failed to end the Cardinals' season-worst losing streak in Pittsburgh, Kelly shut down the Pirates the next night.


After Wainwright failed to stop the Dodgers from recording a team-record 15th straight road victory Monday night, Kelly will get his chance to beat baseball's hottest team -- a team he admits he didn't care for when growing up in Orange County, Calif.


Kelly will start opposite the pitcher considered the best starter in the majors these days, left-hander Clayton Kershaw. The 25-year-old Texan has a majors-best 1.87 ERA and is putting up more impressive numbers than in his 2011 Cy Young season.


Matheny has allowed Kelly to steadily increase his pitch count over his past three starts, from 73 to 86 to 102. Though he features a 95-mph fastball, Kelly also relies on a slider, change and curve when he starts. As a reliever, he sticks mostly to the fastball. He takes the same approach to both roles.


"I am out there trying to get outs as quick as I can," he said.  


To this point of the season, Kelly might be better known as the goofy guy on FOX Sports Midwest's Cardinals promos than as one of the Cardinals' hottest pitchers. A confessed class clown as a youth and always the good sport, Kelly has wormed his way into one promo and made another when he was caught showing off his salsa moves during batting practice.


"It's a long season. You need to have some fun," Kelly said. "As long as you know when it's time to have fun and when it's not."


Kelly's best comedic work may have been when he interrupted a pregame interview with Nelly, who was on hand to promote his bobblehead giveaway scheduled for Tuesday (special ticket required). Looking convincing in an old-man's mask, Kelly butted in to ask Nelly a few questions. After a bit you wouldn't see too many Cardinals attempting to pull off, Kelly refuses to give up his identity.


"I still don't think he knows who I am," Kelly said.


If he doesn't, all Nelly needs to do is check out St. Louis' starting pitcher Tuesday night. At least until he's told otherwise, he's the latest member of the Cardinals' rotation.


You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.