'He's a funny guy': Free spirit Joe Kelly is all business on the mound

News-DemocratOctober 26, 2013 

Cards infielder Daniel Descalso talks about Joe Kelly pitching Game 4 of the World Series Saturday.

BNDVIDEO

I don't think this is how Bob Gibson prepared for his World Series starts.

"The night before, I usually stay up playing video games all night, competitive gaming, more 'Call of Duty,'" said Joe Kelly, 25, the St. Louis Cardinals starter against Boston in Game 3 of the Series on Saturday evening. "You don't want to put too much emphasis (on the start) and just mentally drain yourself thinking, 'Man, this is a huge start,' and you have to go out there and perform.

"That's not the way to go about it, as I would take it. But, yeah, game day comes around, I'm definitely going to be locked in and ready to go."

With the series tied 1-1, the Cardinals' immediate future lies in the hands of one of the freest of free spirits on a very laid-back pitching staff. But one of its most competitive as well.

"I think a lot of our guys are free in this clubhouse to kind of be themselves," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Friday afternoon in his formal press conference in the interview room at Busch Stadium. "And once again I think that's something they see from the veteran leadership they have. I know (Adam) Wainwright is in the video room watching this right now. He's a guy that is not afraid to be himself. You see the crazy dancing. He has fun. But when it gets to be his turn to pitch, there's not a better competitor out there.

"And I think Joe Kelly has found a place here where he has the freedom to do the same. Because he's a funny guy. He enjoys life. He's all the time doing some things you wouldn't expect him to do. But when it comes down to pitching, he's ready to compete. He's a competitor."

And a prankster: While pitching for the University of California-Riverside, Kelly got the nickname "The Machine Gun" after telling the public relations department he was a distant relative of notorious gangster George "Machine Gun" Kelly.

Kelly came clean on that fib a few years ago, though the mischief is happily chronicled in the Cardinals' media guide for 2013.

On Friday, Kelly confessed to a few more inadequacies.

"I'm horrible with musical instruments," Kelly told a clot of national baseball writers eager to learn what makes him tick. "Can't sing and I can't play an instrument."

Kelly glanced down at the microphone sitting on the podium, and spied a bottle of blue Gatorade sitting nearby.

"Nobody ever drinks these, by the way," Kelly said, unscrewing the top and taking a sip as his audience laughed. "I played basketball and football growing up. I didn't play them in high school, but I did play different sports when I was younger."

Kelly, who throws 95 mph despite his 6-1, 175-pound frame, has other, less heralded physical skills.

One of them may not be much of a factor unless a Red Sox batter sends a bouncer over Kelly's head Saturday night.

"I can definitely dunk from standing underneath (the basket) by jumping straight up," he said. "I don't want to talk about dunking abilities, and that's probably not good. And I don't think the GM (general manager) wants to hear that.

"I don't play basketball in the offseason, but, yes, I can dunk a basketball from very different parts of the court."

He'll have a commanding view from the pitching rubber at the vortex of a frenzied Busch Stadium on Saturday night. Just the place for someone not too terribly caught up in the gravity of the moment.

"I think the main difference is the crowd, the fans," said Kelly, 10-5 with a 2.69 ERA in 37 games in the regular season, 0-1 with a 4.41 ERA in three postseason starts. "The regular season we pack the house well, but in the postseason every strike is huge. Every out is huge. Every hit we get is big, even if we don't score.

"I don't think anything is different while (I'm) pitching. You don't want to change, obviously. But I wouldn't say there's anything different from you throwing a fastball to a team during the regular season, and you throwing a fastball to a team during the postseason."

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 jostermeier@bnd.com.

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