PITTSBURGH - Joe Kelly rose to the occasion again for the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday.
For the second time in a month, the right-hander helped the Cardinals avoid being swept at PNC Park as he pitched six strong innings to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-2.
Just don't call him a stopper, though.
"If people want to call me that, that's fine, but I don't look at myself that way," Kelly said. "I'm just trying to win the game."
The Cardinals moved into a first-place tie atop the National League Central standings with the Pirates by salvaging the last game of a three-game series. Both teams are 79-57 and will meet for the final time in the regular season in a three-game series at St. Louis beginning Friday night.
Kelly (7-3) gave up only one run and four hits while striking out five and walking two. Exactly one month earlier, he beat the Pirates to keep the Cardinals from being swept in a five-game series.
"Every team that's fighting for a playoff spot has that Joe Kelly, who comes around late in the season and lifts you," St. Louis third baseman David Freese said. "He's been our stopper. He's picked us up in a lot of big situations over the last couple of months."
Since being moved into the rotation from the bullpen July 6, Kelly has gone 7-0 with a 2.15 ERA in 10 starts while also winning his last four starts. He has allowed one earned run or less in seven of those 10 starts.
"You never know who will step up and be that guy," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Our starters, overall, have had a strong season but you're going to have times when guys wear down a little bit. Right now we have a few guys who are on the way back to hitting their stride but Joe is already there."
Meanwhile, Pirates rookie left-hander Kris Johnson (0-2) had a disastrous first major league start as he was tagged for five runs and seven hits in two-plus innings after being recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis. Johnson walked two and struck out one.
It was quite a contrast to Johnson's other appearance Aug. 19 when he worked six innings and allowed two runs in a 16-inning loss to Arizona.
"He didn't come anywhere near having the command he did today that he had against the Diamondbacks," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "That was the difference today."
Johnson said he was more nervous about starting than being thrown into a tie game in the 11th inning of his debut.
"Maybe it's anticipation, the feeling of not knowing and all of a sudden you're in the game and you don't have time to think about it," Johnson said. "I'm used to starting. Maybe it was just anticipation, maybe nerves. It was a big situation."
Matt Carpenter, Shane Robinson, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina each had two of St. Louis' 12 hits as the Cardinals broke out after being outscored 22-1 while losing their three previous games. Molina lifted his batting average to .329 after going 2-for-15 in his previous four games.
The Cardinals jumped on Johnson early by scoring three first-inning runs.
Carpenter led off with a double, Robinson walked then Craig and Molina hit consecutive RBI singles with one out. A walk to Freese loaded the bases and Jon Jay followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 3-0.
Freese's two-run double in the third scored Craig and Molina, who had opened the inning with back-to-back singles, and knocked Johnson from the game.
St. Louis extended its lead to 7-0 in the sixth when Matt Holiday hit a two-run single that drove in Kelly and Carpenter, who had also singled.
Marlon Byrd drove in Pittsburgh's first run with a single in the sixth, scoring Andrew McCutchen, who was hit on the right elbow with a pitch from Kelly. Byrd scored then scored the second run in the ninth when he doubled and came home on John Buck's single.
Byrd finished 2-for-3 with a walk and is 7-for-19 (.368) with five RBIs in five games since being acquired Tuesday from the New York Mets in a trade.
Justin Morneau went 1-for-3 with one walk in his Pirates' debut, one day after coming over from the Minnesota Twins in a trade.
"This place is unreal when they pack it out," Freese said. "It's a playoff-like environment and you can tell their guys love playing here. For us to come back out in a day game and win after scoring one run the first two nights was really big."
NOTES: St. Louis activated C Tony Cruz from the 15-day disabled list and recalled OF Adron Chambers from Triple-A Memphis on Sunday as the major league roster limit expanded to 40 from 25. ... In addition to adding Johnson, Pittsburgh activated OF Travis Snider from the 15-day DL and selected RHP Kyle Farnsworth from Indianapolis. Farnsworth worked one scoreless inning. ... The Cardinals sent RHP Michael Blazek to the Milwaukee Brewers to complete the trade in which they acquired RHP John Axford on Friday. ... St. Louis RF Carlos Beltran (back tightness) was held out of the starting lineup. ... The Pirates open a three-game series at Milwaukee on Monday afternoon as RHP Charlie Morton (6-3, 2.14 ERA) will face RHP Tyler Thornburg (1-0, 1.94). ... RHP Adam Wainwright (15-8, 2.96) will start for the Cardinals at Cincinnati on Monday afternoon in the first game of a three-game series, facing Reds RHP Mat Latos (13-5, 3.03).