Rookie pitcher Joe Kelly has been a pleasant surprise this year, subbing for the injured Jaime Garcia and giving the Cardinals a chance to win each of his seven starts to date.
But there was a point last season when his current success didn’t look possible.
Kelly started 2011 at High-A Palm Beach, where he went 5-2 with a 2.60 ERA in 12 starts before earning a promotion to Double-A Springfield. But soon after he turned 23 last June, things started to go sour with his new team.
As the innings started to mount and the summer heat got hotter, Kelly began to struggle. He walked too many batters. He gave up an unusually high number of hits. His season, and potentially his career, had taken a turn for the worse.
“I lost it and got away from my routine,” Kelly said during a recent interview with FOXSportsMidwest.com. “I wouldn’t say I stopped working out and stuff but I wasn’t as mentally tough last year as this year and it got to me. I wasn’t mentally tuned out but I was just a little lackadaisical. I was a little tired and it just wasn’t me.
“I went though a rough spell when I got moved up and I had a rough five or six stars walking people and stuff but I was like alright, you need to get back to your old self and I jumped back into it and got mentally focused again and my last five or six starts in double A were lights out.”
Kelly finished with a 5.01 ERA in 11 starts with Springfield, but took his positive finish with him into the offseason. Knowing he was at an important time in his career, the hard-throwing right-hander decided to rededicate himself to baseball.
The right-hander informed those close to him that he was about to have a big year. And in order to do that, he needed to have a big offseason.
“I made a mental note that, ‘Hey this year, this is my year,’” Kelly said. “I knew I was young and I knew that I wanted to have a great career and a big career and this past offseason, I told my family and my friends and my trainer, ‘Hey, this is my year, I really want to get after it this year.’”
So Kelly went to work. And at the top of the list was becoming more than a two-pitch pitcher. He possessed an impressive fastball and slider, but knew he needed more if he wanted to reach the big leagues as a starter.
He worked at length on a changeup, sometimes throwing entire bullpen sessions of just changeups to try and gain a feel for the pitch. And it worked. He arrived in spring training with four pitches, adding a change and curve that helped him attack hitters in ways he hadn’t been able to before.
“I put a lot of time and effort into my bullpens,” Kelly said. “Last year I was only a two-pitch starter and now I’m a four-pitch starter. I really worked on my changeup, which has been huge for me. A two-pitch pitcher will eventually move you to the bullpen. You can’t get guys out three times in a row if you’re not showing a third pitch. You won’t survive at any level that way.”
Kelly made three appearances with the club in spring training, allowing two runs in five innings and holding opponents to a .118 batting average. And despite the rough patch in Springfield, the Cardinals noticed his improvements enough this spring to start him at Triple-A when the season opened.
And much like Kelly has done with the big league club, he took advantage of the opportunity given to him with Memphis. Displaying his new arsenal of pitches, he posted a 2.86 ERA in 12 starts before Garcia went down with a shoulder injury and the Cardinals needed a starter.
Most figured prized pitching prospect Shelby Miller would get the call if a starter went down for a significant amount of time. But with Miller struggling and Kelly continuing to get better, the Cardinals rewarded the former college closer with the promotion.
Kelly has taken his chance and ran with it. Since making his Major League debut on June 10, the right-hander has allowed three earned runs in just one start and two or fewer in his six other starts. He’s had five quality starts in a row, including Tuesday in Milwaukee when he allowed just two earned runs in six innings.
“I got the opportunity and I said, ‘Hey, I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, but just go out there and have fun,’” Kelly said. “I wasn’t too focused on having to do good because that’s where you get ahead of yourself and put way too much pressure on yourself. I made it to the big leagues, so go out there and have fun and relax and I really try to do that instead of putting pressure on myself.
“I’ve just focused on making my pitches and not worrying about, ‘OK, if I make a bad pitch, the guy is going to hit a homer.’ If I made good pitches all game and I give up five runs, all I can say is I went out there and I tried to make my pitches and it just caught me today. When I got called up, I just didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself and say I have to do good to stay. I’m just trying to do my best to focus on the fact that once the ball leaves your hand, you can’t do much about it.”
Asked if Kelly has given the Cardinals everything they could have hoped for since his arrival last month, manager Mike Matheny said simply, “Absolutely.”
But despite his success, Kelly knows he can pitch better. He hasn’t gone past six innings in any of his seven starts and because of a struggling offense has just one win to his name.
“I’m happy, but there’s room for improvement,” Kelly said. “I feel like I’m a couple pitches a way from getting deeper in the games and going seven, eight and even a complete game. I’m only a couple of pitches away. Once I get those down, I’m ready. I’m ready to finish my game and go out there and be out there all game long.
“I see myself continuing to get better. Even if I have bad games, I learn from that and it makes me mentally stronger and tougher to go back out there to say, ‘Hey this is what I did last time, this is what I don’t want to do’. I’m just trying to make pitches and once the ball leaves my hand, I can’t do anything about it. If you make your pitches, you should be able to get hitters out.”
Kelly knows a rough patch will come. He admits he can’t pitch this well forever. But when it does, he’ll focus even harder next time. He had his rough patch last year. And he’s ready both physically and mentally to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I don’t want to make that mistake ever again in my career,” Kelly said.