Neither the Cardinals' Joe Kelly nor the Cubs' Carlos Villanueva has been able to carve out a permanent starting rotation spot, but both have excelled in the swingman role, bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen.
For now, the two right-handers are starting, and they will square off on Friday afternoon in the second of a four-game series at Wrigley Field. The Cubs took Thursday's opener, 3-0, snapping the Cardinals' five-game winning streak and cutting their National League Central lead to one game over the Pirates.
Villanueva has been on a seesaw between the two roles for most of his eight-year career in the Majors. The 29-year-old owns a 3.73 career ERA in 261 relief appearances, compared to 4.65 in 65 starts.
This season, Villanueva has appeared 16 times out of the bullpen and made 10 starts. His outing on Sunday was his first since May 14, as he stepped into the rotation spot vacated when the Cubs traded Scott Feldman to the Orioles. Villanueva threw 69 pitches over four innings, giving up one run on three hits, striking out five and walking one against the Pirates.
"You always don't dwell too much about it, because I had to pitch out of the bullpen," Villanueva said of thoughts of returning to the rotation. "I threw in some key situations out of the bullpen. I threw in the eighth inning a couple of times. It's in the back of the mind, but you've got to get people out whenever you put me in."
Kelly will be making his third start of the season following 21 relief appearances. Over his two big league seasons, the 25-year-old has a 3.61 ERA in 29 games as a reliever and a 3.76 mark in 18 starts. On Saturday against the Marlins, he surrendered two homers while giving up four runs on five hits over six innings.
"I felt good. Made a couple bad pitches, especially the homers," Kelly said. "Those pitches, I make those down and they're going to be outs. … I'm not terribly disappointed, but I'm not too happy. I mean, we won. The walk-off was awesome, but I'd like to be a little better next time."
Cardinals: Building from within
• St. Louis' current 25-man roster features 19 players who made their Major League debuts with the club, and most of them also were Cardinals Draft picks. Cubs manager Dale Sveum believes that is one reason the Redbirds have been perennial contenders.
"You look at their roster, and most of their players are from their organization," Sveum said. "They've always been able to build from their organization and they always seem to have the key free agent pieces -- the [Carlos] Beltrans, the [Lance] Berkmans -- but the bottom line is it comes from the organization. They've always had such a strong Minor League system. They send one guy down who's throwing 97 [mph] and they bring up another guy who is throwing 97. They lose a starter in [Jaime] Garcia, and they've got guys waiting in the wings. That's obviously what everybody tries to build for is to have that consistent Minor League system.
"It all starts with the starting pitching they've had, whether they've traded for them, or the young guys. Obviously, [Yadier] Molina behind the plate is a huge, huge asset to have. He's a guy who's the best catcher, and now he's easily the toughest out in the game."
• Left fielder Matt Holliday left Thursday's game in the fourth inning with right hamstring tightness. Holliday stopped and grabbed the back of his right leg as he ran to first on a groundout to shortstop.
Cubs: Bowden back in the fold
Chicago designated right-hander Michael Bowden for assignment on May 21, clearing a roster spot for Matt Garza when he came off the disabled list. Bowden ended up at Triple-A Iowa, and on Friday, he was back with the Cubs, who needed a fresh arm in their bullpen.
Left-hander Brooks Raley, who threw 4 1/3 innings on Wednesday against the Angels, was optioned to Iowa in a corresponding move. Bowden compiled a 3.78 ERA over 14 appearances during his first stint with Chicago this season and then a 2.41 ERA in 13 appearances at Triple-A, where he said things "clicked."
"I was throwing the ball a lot better," Bowden said. "I think my arm was a little tired earlier in the year, so I've finally got to where it needs to be and I've just executed my pitches better and my mechanics are allowing me to throw with a little more conviction."
• Kelly pitched a scoreless inning against the Cubs on June 18. He made one start at Wrigley Field last season, giving up three runs on five hits and striking out six over 6 1/3 innings.
• Villanueva held the Cardinals to three runs on seven hits over 6 2/3 innings on May 8. He also tossed two-thirds of an inning and didn't allow a run against them on June 19.