Here's one measure of Joe Kelly's importance to the St. Louis Cardinals this season:
The Cardinals won 10 of his 12 starts in August and September, including eight in a row at one point.
And in those 12 starts, Kelly got the win nine times, posting an ERA of 2.09.
Little wonder, then, that the Cardinals have tapped Kelly on the shoulder for the Game 1 start in the National League Championship Series Friday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"It's obviously super-exciting," said Kelly, whose work down the stretch helped the Cardinals secure home-field advantage in the series with L.A. "Something that being a little kid, it's something you look forward to just getting to the playoffs.
"To be named a Game 1 starter, when he (Mike Matheny) told me that, I got chills and goosebumps. To have the confidence that he has in me, my skipper, it's going to be really fun."
Kelly's 2013 was a tale of two seasons, really: The 25-year-old second-year pitcher lost a spring-training battle with rookie Shelby Miller for the fifth starting job, then watched from the bullpen as the Cardinals paraded a string of minor-league prospects (read: John Gast and Tyler Lyons) through the rotation after Jaime Garcia was hurt.
Finally, the Cards gave Kelly a starting shot in July. And he became the lone bright spot in the rotation when the rest of the starting staff hit the doldrums in August and early September.
In 24 games in the first half, three of them starts, Kelly was 2-3 with a 3.88 ERA. In 13 games in the second half, 12 of them starts, he was 9-1 with a 1.88 ERA.
"Yeah, Joe's earned this," Matheny said. "He started off this season -- and I've said it many times -- he showed us so much and earned our respect coming out of spring training in a fight for that fifth spot.
"Nothing that he did not do, but it worked out where he was going to be working out of the pen and getting very few opportunities. But when he did get the opportunities, he made the most of them and continued to come in here regardless of what his role was, trying to figure out how to help our team win."
Kelly could have sulked in the pen; at one point he was relegated to long relief, a role that brought him little work. But he waited his turn and seized the starting chance when it came his way.
"My mindset was just come to the field ready every day, no matter what my job was that day," Kelly said. "Using me later in the game early in the year, and me being the long guy after that, you've got to come to the park mentally prepared to begin the game at any moment.
"I went through a couple dry spells where I didn't pitch for 12, 13, 14 days. But if you're not locked in and you get that opportunity, you might miss it. So I was just coming to the ballpark and working my tail off, and making sure when I got my chance that I was definitely ready for it."
The Cardinals won 11 of Kelly's first 12 starts after he joined the rotation July 6, and he got the victory in eight of those outings.
"Those sort of things pay off in the long run, especially on a winning team," Matheny said. "If you just stay the course and you buy into the overall philosophy and realize that you're going to have your chance.
"When he got his chance, he made the most of it. When the starting opportunity became available, it was obvious. Joe just continued to push and work and show that he's ready for an opportunity like this one."
In Game 1 of the NLCS, Kelly (10-5, 2,69 ERA) comes face-to-face with commanding Dodgers right-hander Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63 ERA). It's no greater challenge than Game 3 of the NLDS, when Kelly battled Pittsburgh ace Francisco Liriano to a standoff before the Pirates prevailed 5-3 against the St. Louis bullpen.
"I've gone against a few good pitchers this year," Kelly said, "and I try to focus on what I can do to keep the game as close as possible and win ballgames, and help our offense get back in the dugout as soon as we can."
He'll try not to get caught up in the moment, or worry about how his outing matches up against that of Greinke.
"I don't want to go out there and say, 'Hey, man, this guy is throwing up zeros. I have to throw up a zero right away.' ... You just want to focus on what you can do to get their guys out," Kelly said.
Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the Belleville News-Democrat since their playoff run in 1985. He can be reached at (618) 239-2512, or at firstname.lastname@example.org