PITTSBURGH (AP) -- 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. "It finally gave us a little momentum."
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 work on his mechanics and get some rest.
Locke won't pitch again until next weekend at the earliest. If Pittsburgh decides he needs even more time off, it will likely have to look elsewhere for help after the Cardinals took it to Johnson.
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.
"These are the kind of situations you want to be put in, I just didn't take advantage of them when I had the chance," Johnson said. "I worked all my life to get here and to fall short today, just going to have to get back on the field, get back on the throwing program and get back to where we were before."
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.
Kelly has been a pleasant surprise since moving into the rotation. He never let the Pirates in the game, allowing only an RBI single by Marlon Byrd in the sixth.
By then the Cardinals had things well in hand as baseball's tightest division race once again drew even.
"My velocity was a lot better than in my last start, my sinker was really working and I was able to pitch to both sides of the plate," Kelly said.
The Pirates, whose 79 wins are tied for the franchise's high-water mark since 1992, made two bold moves last week in hopes of drawing ahead. They brought in Byrd and catcher John Buck from the New York Mets on Tuesday, then made an even bigger splash Saturday when they convinced Morneau to leave Minnesota after 11 seasons.
Morneau arrived at PNC Park midway through Saturday night's blowout and watched the remainder of the game from the dugout. He got a better view on Sunday, playing first base and batting sixth.
The 2006 AL MVP grounded out in his first plate appearance, walked in his second and then lined a single to right field his third time up. He ended his first game for Pittsburgh with a deep fly to the warning track in the ninth.
NOTES: Pittsburgh LHP Wandy Rodriguez is dealing with arthritis in his pitching arm. Rodriguez, who has been on the disabled list since July with forearm tightness, is expected to resume his throwing program this week after a visit with Dr. James Andrews revealed no structural damage to the arm. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said the team remains hopeful Rodriguez can return in some capacity down the stretch. ... The Cardinals activated C Tony Cruz from the 15-day disabled list even though Cruz hasn't been cleared to swing a bat as he recovers from a broken forearm. Cruz would be used only in an emergency. ... The Pirates begin a three-game series in Milwaukee on Monday. Charlie Morton (6-3, 2.14 ERA) faces Tyler Thornburg (1-0, 1.94). ... St. Louis travels to Cincinnati on Monday to begin a four-game set with the Reds. Adam Wainwright (15-8, 2.96) starts for the Cardinals against Mat Latos (13-5, 3.03). ... The Cardinals sent reliever Michael Blazek to Milwaukee to complete the trade they made Friday for RHP John Axford.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Lance Lynn can't get anybody out. St. Louis can't score any runs. And with a month to go in an increasingly unpredictable season, the Cardinals find themselves trailing the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central.
Pittsburgh ace A.J. Burnett held the punchless Cardinals to four hits over seven innings and the Pirates rolled to a 7-1 victory Saturday night to move back in front of the tightest division race in baseball.
Lynn (13-9) gave up seven runs and 10 hits in four erratic innings to lose his fourth straight decision.
"I've got to do better than I did tonight," he said. "It was unacceptable. I didn't get the job done. I've got to make better pitches in big situations and not let the big innings happen. I've just got to get better and I will."
Lynn received little help from the typically potent St. Louis offense. The Cardinals have scored just one run during their three-game losing streak.
"We've had a few balls hit hard, but not a lot," manager Mike Matheny said. "I like what our offense has done over the majority of the season. You don't want to take a couple of games and start making conclusions. We're just going to keep going about it."
The Cardinals still lead the National League in batting average and runs but are 5-10 against the Pirates this season. Pittsburgh received another jolt early Saturday afternoon when first baseman Justin Morneau was acquired from the Minnesota Twins.
Matheny and Lynn both believe the current slide is nothing more than a hiccup.
"I'm not happy with way I'm throwing the ball, but I'm going to fix it and I'm looking forward to the next month because it's going to be better," Lynn said.
It can't get much worse for Lynn after the Pirates jumped on him early.
Pittsburgh went in front 2-0 in the second inning on RBI singles by Burnett and Jose Tabata. Marlon Byrd drove in Pedro Alvarez to spark the third, and Russell Martin followed with a three-run homer to give Burnett all the support he needed.
"You could really feel the momentum shift there," Matheny said. "You don't want that to happen. You want your team to keep grinding, but you could feel things shift. Our guys kept fighting and our bullpen did a great job of holding them, but we never got much going."
Burnett's command had something to do with it. Mixing in a newly mastered changeup, Burnett (7-9) struck out six and walked one as the Pirates improved to 79-56 and moved within three victories of their first winning season since 1992.
"It's a great feat," Burnett said. "It's been a long time, but our goals have been higher than that."
That's certainly evident after the Pirates put together their second big trade in five days. Pittsburgh brought in Marlon Byrd and John Buck from the New York Mets on Tuesday.
Byrd homered in his Pirates debut on Wednesday. Morneau won't get a chance until Sunday at the earliest. Manager Clint Hurdle hoped Morneau would be available on Saturday night if needed. Instead, the Pirates were already up by six runs when Morneau popped into the dugout. He spent the next hour joking around with his new teammates.
"You try to get here as quick as you can because you want to be a part of this," Morneau said.
Important baseball as the calendar flips to September is an annual rite of summer in St. Louis, but the pitching staff has begun to fray after five months of dominance.
Lynn appeared on his way to a career year after winning his 13th game of the season in a romp over Cincinnati four weeks ago. His ERA over his last four starts is 7.66.
Pittsburgh ranks 10th in the NL in runs scored, one of the main reasons general manager Neal Huntington aggressively pursued Morneau. But the Pirates are averaging 5.2 runs per game during their current six-game homestand, and Morneau's addition gives Pittsburgh another proven bat to join MVP contender Andrew McCutchen and slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez.
NOTES: Reliever John Axford, acquired on Friday from Milwaukee, pitched a perfect seventh in his Cardinals debut. ... The Pirates have outhomered St. Louis 18-3 in 15 meetings this season. ... St. Louis SS Pete Kozma grounded out while pinch-hitting for Lynn and is hitless in his last 29 at-bats. ... The series concludes Sunday. Joe Kelly (6-3, 2.91 ERA) starts for St. Louis against Kris Johnson (0-1, 3.00). ... The Cardinals have not settled on a starter for Tuesday in Cincinnati. Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Tyler Lyons are all under consideration.