CHICAGO -- It was the kind of game that showed why the Cardinals are on top of the National League Central with two games left before the All-Star break.
After jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning of a 3-2 win against the Cubs on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, the Cards were forced to battle the rest of the game to stay ahead. Carlos Beltran was the offensive star, going 3-for-4 with an RBI, but St. Louis won because of an impressive team effort.
"I think when you win ballgames that are this close it really shows the type of team that we have," said Beltran, who hit third instead of second because of star left fielder Matt Holliday's right hamstring injury. "The bullpen, the guys coming off the bench, our defense … it's really a big lift when you win the type of games like this one."
It started with a solid outing by Joe Kelly (1-3), the fifth starter who has also worked out of the bullpen as a long reliever this season. Kelly went 5 1/3 innings and allowed just one run, but he wasn't the lone reason for the blue "L" flag atop the flag pole above the scoreboard afterward.
The Cardinals also got a great play by shortstop Pete Kozma in the third that kept them in front 2-1 and squashed a potential Cubs rally. They got a pinch two-out triple in the seventh by journeyman catcher Rob Johnson, who scored the game-winning run on Matt Carpenter's double in the next at-bat. They also had five relievers allow just one run and put out a couple of smoldering fires to make sure Kelly got his first win.
Afterward, Kelly said his friends from the 'pen started joking around that nobody really started the game for the Cardinals -- it was just one big relief effort.
"They were joking around, saying it was a bullpen day," Kelly said, smiling. "I wasn't a starter today. They said, 'Oh, big bullpen day … even Joe, our long reliever, got a chance to start.' But our bullpen's lights out. They're pitching well. We had five guys today pitching out of the bullpen and they're all excellent. That's good to see."
Thanks to a quality start by Jake Westbrook on Thursday, the Cardinals' bullpen came in better rested Friday. It showed in the last four innings, after Kelly handed the game over with one out in the sixth and Anthony Rizzo standing on second with the Cubs trailing 2-1.
Randy Choate was summoned to face back-to-back left-handed hitters and wound up getting out of a sticky spot. He walked Nate Schierholtz to put the potential go-ahead run on first, but then got Brian Bogusevic to ground into an inning-ending double play and preserve the lead.
In the seventh, Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist got the Cardinals out of another tricky situation by combining to strike out the side. Maness racked up one strikeout before allowing a single to Welington Castillo and then Siegrist took over -- striking out Julio Borbon and Luis Valbuena to close out the frame.
Siegrist gave up a solo homer to Starlin Castro starting the eighth to make it 3-2 and put some pressure on the visitors. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny called up Trevor Rosenthal after Siegrist struck out Rizzo, and he retired two straight to close out the frame.
Edward Mujica closed things out with a 1-2-3 the ninth for his 26th save.
"We have confidence in the bullpen, we can pitch anybody in [any] situation, lefty on lefty or righty on righty," Kelly said. "They all work to give Mujica the ball at the end, but those guys pitched lights out today."
Both starters settled in during the middle innings to keep it tight.
After allowing a leadoff single to Beltran in the third, Cubs starter Carlos Villanueva (2-5) retired the next 12 hitters to keep his team close. Kelly set down seven in a row after allowing his first run in the third on Alfonso Soriano's single that scored Valbuena.
Kelly also got some help defensively by a great play from Kozma, ranging far into the hole at short and firing a bullet to second to get the second out in the third. Valbuena advanced from second to third on the play and then scored, but Kelly got Schierholtz to ground out and really put the spotlight on Kozma's effort to prevent more damage.
Kozma went 0-for-4 at the plate and is hitless in his last 26 at-bats, but he continues to prove his worth in the lineup with his fielding skills.
"We have to stand by what we believe about how much value he brings to us defensively," Matheny said. "Either we're lying or we truly believe that, and if we really believe that … we let him continue to battle at the plate while we take our best shot at winning -- which is oftentimes putting our best defender out there in certain situations."
The Cardinals got off to a great start against Villanueva. Carpenter led the game off with a single and scored on Beltran's one-out triple two batters later. Beltran then made it 2-0 when he scored on Allen Craig's single.
Villanueva walked Matt Adams with two outs to give the Cardinals two runners aboard for David Freese, but he flew out to end the inning. Villanueva got stronger with each frame before he left it up to the Cubs' bullpen -- going six innings, allowing four hits, walking two and striking out four.
"I just couldn't put those guys away," Villanueva said. "We did exactly what we wanted to do but didn't execute the pitches [early]. It just comes down to that."
Brian Hedger is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.