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A fit for fifth starter? Cardinals want VerHagen to ‘run’ with opportunity even after Thursday’s stumble

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St. Louis Cardinals beat the New York Mets 6-4

The Cardinals' Drew VerHagen pitches in the third inning of an exhibition game against the New York Mets on Sunday, March 20, 2022, at Clover Park in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. — A little less than 3½ hours before his first pitch of the game, Cardinals right-hander Drew VerHagen stood near the team’s clubhouse with five other pitchers and stretched out his arm so that it could be measured for a custom suit.

By the end of the evening, the Cardinals hoped to see him fit for the rotation.

“Good fit,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “We’re hoping he can take the ball and run with this.”

He kept others in the race.

In what was scripted to be a five-inning outing that could have been the coronation for him as the fifth starter to open the regular season, VerHagen had difficulty twice getting through the Miami Marlins lineup Thursday night at Roger Dean Stadium. Twelve of the first 16 batters he faced came to the plate with a runner in scoring position, and that number didn’t get to 13 because Jazz Chisholm Jr. launched VerHagen’s 65th pitch for a grand slam. When the ball bounced off the Cardinals’ baseball operations offices in right field, VerHagen had allowed seven runs on seven hits and, on those 65 pitches, recorded only seven outs.

“I made it hard on myself,” VerHagen said.

“It would have been good to see him go out there, dominate, have some presence to him, move on from there, but no, it’s not one night, one way or the other,” Marmol said, adding VerHagen will likely start again in four days. “It will be good to see how he responds to it.”

The seven runs VerHagen allowed (all earned) came on two swings, but it was one walk that triggered the avalanche. The right-hander flirted with trouble in the first inning before Nolan Arenado gave him an escape hatch by turning a line drive into a quick double play. The Marlins opened the second inning with consecutive hits, and VerHagen was again swamped by fish on the bases when Arenado threw home to steal an out. With two on and two out, VerHagen faced Miami’s No. 9 hitter, Miguel Rojas. He walked on five pitches to bring around the top of the order and Jorge Soler up with the bases loaded.

He cleared them with a double.

“I have to go after Rojas,” VerHagen said. “That was a pivotal point in that outing. To walk him to bring up their best hitter — that was poor execution on my part.”

VerHagen remains the leader for the position, but others still have a chance to make their case during the final weekend of exhibition games. On Thursday afternoon, Marmol said, “We’re wanting to make that call really, really soon. Really soon.”

Running out of innings, the Cardinals have a back-field brunch scrimmage scheduled Friday morning so that right-hander Jake Woodford and left-hander Matthew Liberatore can both have an opportunity to extend to five innings. Coming off a steady season in the bullpen that saw his prominence increase as his production improved, Woodford has pitched well during the spring. In two Grapefruit League appearances, Woodford has thrown five innings and offset seven hits allowed with four strikeouts. He’s allowed one run and one walk. Liberatore continues to remain in the mix even as Class AAA Memphis’ roster began flying north to start its season.

By pitching Friday, Liberatore will be on turn to be Memphis’ opening day starter.

Marmol told Adam Wainwright earlier this week and confirmed to the Post-Dispatch that the veteran right-hander will get the opening day start Thursday at Busch Stadium. He will be followed by Miles Mikolas and newcomer Steven Matz in that first series, based on the schedule the Cardinals have kept this spring. Dakota Hudson will be the fourth starter.

Wainwright will get two starts during the first homestand, and when he gets that second one will determine the first start for the fifth starter and whether Wainwright faces Milwaukee.

Whoever claims the fifth starter spot will be part of a committee to cover innings as the Cardinals also expect Aaron Brooks and Woodford to be in the mix for middle-inning, multi-inning relief and possibly piggyback starts.

The Cardinals agreed to terms with VerHagen on a two-year deal right before the 99-day lockout but could not complete the deal until hours after the lockout ended. He returns to the majors after spending the previous two years in Japan, starting for the Nippon Ham Fighters. He was close to returning to Asia when the Cardinals presented him what he wanted — a chance to win a starting job. That role opened up when Jack Flaherty’s shoulder discomfort slowed his spring. Flaherty’s no-throw fortnight ends this weekend, but for at least a month, the Cardinals will need a fifth starter.

What has intrigued them about VerHagen is the deception of his delivery, aided by his lithe 6-foot-6 frame, and how batters and the data see his pitches.

“I’ve played behind him — he’s nasty,” infielder Brendan Donovan said. “Everything he throws is hard. He throws it where he wants it. As a hitter, it looks uncomfortable. I mean, you can stand behind someone and you see the pitches that hitters swing at and the weak contact or where there are swings and misses, and, man, that looks uncomfortable. That’s how you describe how nasty a guy is.”

VerHagen’s curveball ranks notably high with its spin rate and plunge, and the slow swing of his arm back followed by a bullwhip snap delivery allows the curve to play off the four-seam fastball.

Before Thursday’s start, catcher Andrew Knizner said when a pitcher has an “outlier” pitch like VerHagen’s curve it’s important to be judicious with its usage. VerHagen could have been more aggressive with it Thursday.

The right-hander tested the Marlins over and over with his sinker, using the curveball only nine times and the four-seamer from the same eye level only seven. VerHagen said the breaking ball was his best pitch of the evening, and he did get a key strikeout on it to end the first inning. The heavy emphasis on the sinker was complicated by how it misbehaved. He didn’t get a couple calls on two sinkers on the edge, and as he tried to get it over the plate, it drifted, right to the heart.

“They were all over the two-seam,” VerHagen said.

The first three batters of the third inning reached base, and the fifth, Chisholm, drilled his grand slam over the right-field. He hit a 93.6 mph sinker that didn’t.

“He’s got stuff going every direction,” Knizner said. “He’s got the four-seam. He’s got the two-seam — the sinker — and that’s moving way in to the righties. He’s got the slider down and away to righties. He’s got the curveball going straight down. He can play up and down. He can play east and west. And he’s got a good changeup, too.”

What unlocks the ability to use those other pitches — and be the four-pitch mixer for the fifth spot in the rotation — is better command than he had Thursday. The flighty sinker limited how he could use his other pitches. And, he said late Thursday, in hindsight the Marlins’ reaction to the curve invited using it more. He didn’t get the inning he hoped or the pronouncement that was possible, but he got his pitch count up to 71.

And he’ll have one more start to make the Cards' decision obvious.

“The bigger part is trying to execute your pitches — pitching better than what I did,” VerHagen said. “I’m not really going to chalk it up as a moral victory that I got my pitch count up. I want to perform better than that.”

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