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Joe Kelly is making the most of his long-awaited opportunity

Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly won again Tuesday night, helping St. Louis stretch its National League Central lead to 1 1/2 games over the Pirates.

Kelly is now 6-3 with a 2.91 ERA for the season and 5-0 with a 2.09 ERA in the second half. He is 6-1 with a 2.17 ERA this year as a starting pitcher.

It sort of makes me a little annoyed that in the first half of the season Cardinals manager Mike Matheny did everything he could to keep Kelly off the mound. The Birds dipped into the minors for John Gast, Tyler Lyons, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha before they'd let Kelly have a chance to start a game. Meanwhile, Kelly sat in the bullpen and collected rust while Matheny refused to use him for anything other than mop up duty or as a last resort in an extra innings game.

When Kelly finally did make a start -- and he pitched well -- the Cardinals repeatedly skipped his turn in the rotation.

Why? Kelly performed admirably when pressed into duty as a starter last season. And he pitched really well in the first two-thirds of 2013 spring training before he was inexplicably taken out of the derby for a spot in the rotation. Kelly is obviously a guy who needs to pitch regularly. He struggled out of the bullpen after long layoffs. But he seems to have much better contorl and velocity working every fifth day. He's got good stuff and is unflappable under pressure. What's not to like?

If the Birds won two or three more games with Kelly on the hill, it could make a huge difference in a nip and tuck race for the NL Central title. And not only might Kelly have had more success than the other, less experienced pitchers pressed into service. But it might have helped Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn perform better late in the season to have had an extra day off instead of the team opting to skip Kelly's turn to pitch.

If the playoffs started today, I can't see how Kelly wouldn't be one of the Cardinals' top three starters. But, then again, the club seems to have an entirely different perspective than mine when it comes to Kelly.

I just hope the Cardinals don't waste Kelly because they're so enamored with the other young arms in the system. Shelby Miller, Martinez and Wacha might be flashier names on the prospect projection lists. But Kelly is very much a part of the Redbirds' bumper crop of young pitchers. And he's made it over every hurdle put in front of him so far.