ST. LOUIS -- Whether Joe Kelly has paid attention to the chatter or not -- and for the record, he says he hasn't -- the murmurs have been there for quite some time now.
The anticipation of Jaime Garcia's impending return comes with the reality of another pitcher's inevitable departure. And while the Cardinals have remained mum on the expected domino effect of Garcia's rotation re-insertion, there's no dodging the possibility that Kelly could be the one pushed aside.
On Tuesday, however, Kelly pitched to prove he's right where he should be. Backed by home runs from Matt Holliday and Jon Jay, Kelly pitched into the seventh in a series-opening game the Cardinals took, 8-2, over Arizona. The win came in front of 34,587 to kick off a nine-game homestand at Busch Stadium.
"He's a competitor, and you can't teach that," manager Mike Matheny said. "It's not necessarily in everybody that walks into that clubhouse, that [they] are able to put things aside and just be able to compete. He's taken some good strides toward really proving his value and being able to do it."
Pitching on the same night Garcia was making what was likely his final Minor League rehab start, Kelly dodged damage early, pitched efficiently in the middle innings and lasted long enough for the Cardinals to put the game in the hands of their three most trustworthy relievers.
It was a script the Cardinals needed to jump-start a stretch of six straight games against opponents also in the Wild Card mix. The D-backs were already on the fringe of that race, and this loss puts them five games behind St. Louis.
Arizona starter Ian Kennedy matched Kelly with zeros through three innings before Holliday's 437-foot homer provided St. Louis with a 2-0, fourth-inning lead. The home run, Holliday's 23rd of the season, pushed him past his 2011 total.
The blast also boosted Holliday's RBI total to 81, placing him second in that category among all National League players. The only player with more? Teammate Carlos Beltran, whose 0-for-4 night on Tuesday leaves his RBI total at 83.
"Not many people can execute that," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said of Holliday's ability to turn on an inside fastball. "It was pretty bad for us, but you've got to give him credit on that."
Holliday's swing came about the time Kelly steadied. Kelly, displaying a tweaked arm slot when throwing offspeed pitches, pitched perfect fifth and sixth innings. The fifth ended on a spectacular at-the-wall juggling catch by Jay, who then delivered a solo home run in his next at-bat.
"Jay is one of the best in the business," Kelly said. "If a ball goes to center field, I feel like he has a play on it every time."
Jay had misplayed a ball in the third inning. A double play turn started by second baseman Skip Schumaker helped Kelly escape trouble in that frame.
"I'm not [fellow infielder Daniel] Descalso by any means at second base," Schumaker said. "But I feel I'm improving every year and that's all you can ask for."
Jay's home run, while just his fourth this season, extended his hitting streak to eight games. He has tallied 17 hits since Aug. 6.
"The bottom line is that I need to get on base," Jay said. "I'm just trying to keep it simple."
Arizona carved into that three-run lead in the seventh. Justin Upton led off the inning with a single, which catcher Miguel Montero followed with a first-pitch home run. Kelly faced one more batter -- and induced a flyout to the wall in left field -- before Matheny made his move.
Reliever Edward Mujica entered and preserved the one-run lead, putting Kelly in line to pick up his second win of the month. Kelly's 6 1/3-inning start matched his longest of the season.
Where Kelly fits from here should be known within days. Perhaps he'll stay put. Moving him to the bullpen would be another option aside from sending him back to the Minors. Whatever the decision, Kelly has impressed in his first taste of starting at this level so far.
"I love him in the rotation," Schumaker said. "It'd be tough to move him, if that's what's going on. ... We think the world of him. We're lucky he's on our team."
Kelly turned heads in the opposing dugout on Tuesday, too. It was the first time Arizona had gotten a look at the rookie starter.
"He's definitely a guy they can use in the rotation, but it's the big leagues and you can come up and throw the ball as well as you want, but if there's somebody else they need to put in there, they will," Upton said. "But he threw the ball great, and I'm sure he's been pretty solid throughout his stint here, so hopefully he gets his shot."
Tuesday marked Kelly's 12th start; eight have now lasted at least six innings. He's given up more than three earned runs in a start just once.
The change he made in arm slot, which proved useful on Tuesday, came at the urging of his rotation-mates, who pointed out that he could better disguise his off-speed pitches by releasing them from the same spot he throws his fastball.
Kelly acted upon that suggestion. And he intends to continue in action. For while others sit back to wait on the Cardinals to clear up their rotation conundrum, Kelly will prepare to start on Sunday.
"I think everyone else thinks about it more than I do, honestly," Kelly said. "It hasn't really crossed my mind. Tomorrow, I'm going to go get my leg work in. The next day, I'll go throw my bullpen. Until someone tells me otherwise, I'm going to keep the same routine, the same plan and go from there."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.