JUPITER, Fla. — More than any line in the box score or tabulation from Trackman, the most telling data from Matthew Liberatore’s start against Detroit on Saturday came later in the manager’s office, where Oliver Marmol offered his review.
“That’s the best I’ve ever seen him,” the manager said. “Not even close.”
Liberatore, the Cardinals’ top left-handed pitching prospect, had his most assertive outing of spring training with five innings against the Tigers at Roger Dean Stadium. He allowed a solo home run, but otherwise vexed Detroit’s lineup with a curveball that the Cardinals have been wanting and wanting and wanting and wanting Liberatore to flex with more consistency. The lefty struck out six of the 17 batters he faced.
He landed 82% of his curves for strikes.
He got called strikes or whiffs on 64% of them.
People are also reading…
The Tigers did not put one of them in play.
“That’s the big leagues,” Marmol said.
Throughout the past month, Liberatore has had moments like that, not complete games. The manager has described Liberatore’s outings as strong one time, and then even inning to inning it appears as if the left-handed lacks what Marmol called “conviction” with his pitches. With Willson Contreras behind the plate and the two of them in sync for pitch calls, Liberatore threw 65 pitches, 49 for strikes. He touched 96.4 mph with his four-seam fastball, 96.9 mph with his sinker, and he sat with both of them at a steady 95 mph.
Nearly a fifth of his pitches got a swing and miss on them.
All of those came as he played his curveball off the fastball, and Detroit missed on both of them with equal alacrity.
Three of Liberatore’s first four innings ended with a double play. He retired the side in order in the third inning with two strikeouts, including one on a called strike three.
Liberatore appears headed for Class AAA Memphis, where he will once again head the Redbirds’ rotation, joined there by two other top pitching prospects, Gordon Graceffo and possibly Michael McGreevy. Connor Thomas will be another lefty in the mix.
The dilemma for the Cardinals that Marmol acknowledged after the 8-4 victory against Detroit is when and if Liberatore can help the Cardinals as a reliever, and how to answer that same question with Zack Thompson. The Cardinals see both pitchers as potential starters, and Thompson has spent this spring preparing to be one of the lefties in the Cardinals’ bullpen. At times, the Cardinals have spoken as if he’s already the late-inning lefty.
Marmol said the two lefties are forcing his staff to have “short-term and long-term” discussions about how they best help the team now and still prepare to better help the team later.
That starts with Liberatore repeating what he did Saturday.
Asked if how Liberatore limited the Tigers and how he worked with his curveball would play in the majors, Marmol said it does – but it must consistently.
“That was as impressive as I’ve seen Libby throw,” Marmol said. “Now, that he’s shown the ability to do it, I’m really looking forward to seeing it again.”
• Genesis Cabrera made his first appearance since returning from the World Baseball Classic, and he zipped around a hit for a scoreless inning. Cabrera joins the competition for one of the few openings in the bullpen, and he could be the only lefty or one of two lefties coming out of the bullpen. Cabrera touched 95.6 mph with his fastball, topped the sinker at 95.4 mph, and landed his slider for an average of 89.3 mph. All of those pitches hit the velocity the Cardinals want to see him build on – and maintain.
He struck out one four batters he faced.
Cabrera threw 15 pitches and got swings and misses on four.
• Dylan Carlson stung a single from the left side of the plate and drilled a home run from the right side of the plate for his two-for-four day. Carlson has been pushing for more power this spring, and that has come with an upswing in strikeouts. His home run in the seventh inning helped the Cardinals widen the lead after Detroit narrowed it.
The homer was Carlson’s third of spring training and his first of spring from the right side of the plate. He’s upped his OPS to .886, and his 12 RBIs are among the Grapefruit League leaders.
• Right-hander Wilking Rodriguez, the Rule 5 pick who will force the Cardinals soon to make a call on whether to move him back through waivers and possibly to the Yankees, encountered his first turbulence of spring by nearly mishandling a lead in the seventh innings. He was able to get only one out while allowing three runs on four hits. His cutter continues to play, but the four-seam fastball did not have the same overpowering look or command, and it got hit.
Rodriguez complicated his inning by hitting a batter, and three of the four hits he allowed were singles.
• Washington University grad Ryan Loutos fished the Cardinals out of trouble in that seventh inning by collecting two outs with some help from his defense. He got a groundout from the only batter he faced, and the other came when …
• Detroit’s Jonathan Davis stole second on Cardinals catcher Tres Barrera. The throw to second was stopped by Masyn Winn in front of the bag after a hop. Davis was safe by far. But, at third, the Tigers’ Seth Stephenson attempted to advance on the throw that Winn didn’t catch clean. Mistake. Winn plucked the ball from the ground and threw a strike home to get Stephenson by two strides.
Winn, a pitcher if this shortstop thing doesn’t work out, threw the ball at 91.0 mph from second base to the catcher home, per Trackman.
• An in-game replacement for Carlson in center field, minor-league outfielder Victor Scott II had a diving catch in in the eighth to end the inning. The Tigers had two runners on base and lefty Anthony Misiewicz needed an assist to slip free of the inning. Detroit’s Austin Murr stung a liner to shallow center that Scott dove force to catch and keep the Tigers’ scoreless.
• After the win, the Cardinals reassigned shortstop Jeremy Rivas to minor-league camp. As the youngest player in the big-league clubhouse, Rivas celebrated his 20th birthday earlier this spring. He had some strong plays in the field and showed versatility before heading the back field. His reliable fielding earned him the spot in big-league camp to help cover innings due to the World Baseball Classic players.
• Dakota Hudson will start Sunday against the Mets. Jake Woodford will follow as Monday’s starter, and on Tuesday Jack Flaherty will start.