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Associated Press
Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly won his fourth consecutive start in Sunday’s victory in Pittsburgh.

Cardinals tie for NL Central lead

– Joe Kelly began the season in the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen with an electric fastball and an identity crisis.

Consider the crisis solved.

At the moment, Kelly has become The Stopper.

The right-hander allowed four hits over six solid innings to win his fourth straight start and the Cardinals moved back into a tie for first place in the NL Central with a 7-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday.

Kelly (7-3) walked two and struck out five while remaining unbeaten since being moved to the starting rotation full time in July.

“He’s kind of figured himself out,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “Early in the season, he was confused. He thought he should be a strikeout guy at 97 (mph), but with the movement on his fastball he’d be crazy not to use that movement to try to command the bottom of the zone and get ground balls, too.”

Kelly received plenty of help from an offense that snapped out of a three-game funk by tagging Pittsburgh spot starter Kris Johnson (0-2).

Matt Holliday and David Freese drove in two runs apiece while Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and Shane Robinson added two hits each for St. Louis.

The Cardinals managed all of one run over the first 18 innings of the series, losses that came at the hands of proven veterans Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett. On Sunday, they faced a 28-year-old making his first major league start who was nearly out of baseball two years ago.

“For us to come back out in a day game after scoring one run the first two nights was really big,” Freese said.

Pittsburgh’s push for an NL Central title could go down to the wire. The Pirates reclaimed first place with a 7-1 victory Saturday night but St. Louis responded by knocking around Johnson, who took the hill after Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle decided to give struggling All-Star Jeff Locke a much-needed breather.

Locke is 1-2 with a 6.88 ERA in the second half, and Hurdle thought a few days off would allow the left-hander to get some rest.

Carpenter doubled to open the game and Robinson followed with a walk. Craig and Molina provided consecutive RBI singles, and Jon Jay added a sacrifice fly to stake Kelly to a 3-0 lead before he threw his first pitch.

The advantage grew in the third when Freese doubled to score Craig and Molina and end Johnson’s day. Two weeks after limiting Arizona to one run in six innings of relief in his first major league appearance, Johnson gave up five runs on seven hits in two-plus innings.

Justin Morneau went 1 for 3 in his debut with the Pirates a day after Pittsburgh acquired the first baseman from Minnesota to bolster the franchise’s bid for its first playoff appearance in 21 years.

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