JUPITER, Fla. — The question welcoming Jordan Walker into his first career start in a Grapefruit League game was whether his timing from the back fields would catch up to the challenge of the main field this early in camp.
He announced his answer with authority.
Walker, the Cardinals' 20-year-old top prospect, crushed the first pitch he saw from All-Star right-hander Johnny Cueto for a three-run homer. The ball left Walker's bat at 108.9 mph, and it carried an estimated 430 feet over the center field wall, not too far from the Marlins' office building.
Walker's first homer of spring gave the Cardinals' a 5-0 lead in the top of the first inning against the Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium. Walker added an infield second in the third inning to begin the day two-for-two before finishing two-for-four in the game. His friend and fellow prospect Masyn Winn had two hits in his Grapefruit League debut.
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Four of the first five hitters ahead of Walker in the starting lineup reached base with a single. With the bases loaded and one out, Nolan Gorman stung a hard grounder toward Miami second baseman Luis Arraez. The ball got on Arraez quicker than his glove got on the ball, and Gorman was credited with a two-run single by the official scorer.
That brought up Walker with two on, one out, and Cueto ready to shimmy.
A two-time All-Star and Cy Young award runnerup in 2014, Cueto is many years removed from the fracas in Cincinnati that assured he likely would never be a Cardinal. During a melee with the Cardinals at Great American Ball Park, Cueto was pressed against the net behind home plate and began kicking — while wearing cleats. Chris Carpenter has scratches across his back that he showed the media the next day, and Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue had concussion-related symptoms long after the fight.
In trouble in his first appearance of spring for Miami, Cueto started Walker off with an 88.9 mph fastball. (See below how he ignored one earlier in camp.)
Walker jumped it and set it deep over one of the farthest parts of Roger Dean Stadium. His hit carried not too far from the same place where Willson Contreras' blast Saturday did not escape the ballpark.
In the bottom of the second inning, Marlins infielder Jean Segura experienced the Dean dull when he hammered a pitch high and deep to center field. Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas reacted as if the ball was going to leave the stadium, and yet it did not.
Meeting it at the wall for the out was the outstretched glove of a Cardinals' outfielders.
It was 6-foot-5 Walker.
From earlier ...
Jordan Walker makes first start for Cardinals in lineup crowded with DH contenders
All the work over the past few weeks on the back fields of the Cardinals’ campus at Roger Dean Stadium helps position young players and players challenging for roles in the minds of the evaluators.
But to win a job, it takes games.
Headlining prospect Jordan Walker will make his first start of the Grapefruit League schedule Sunday as the Cardinals face Skip Schumaker, Jon Jay, John Mabry and their Miami Marlins. Walker, focused on playing outfield this spring, will begin the game in left field and bat sixth. He’s bookended by two left-handed batters, Nolan Gorman and Alec Burleson.
Walker got into Saturday’s opener for the late innings, striking out in his one at-bat and playing left field. He got a tough call on a strike before working the count full and then missing on an off-speed pitch.
The 20-year-old outfielder has talked about the benefit of live batting practice and the assortment of pitchers he’s seen from the Cardinals roster. Drew VerHagen, who is set to pitch in Sunday’s game, tested the young outfielder with curveballs. When he faced fellow prospect Michael McGreevy this past week, Walker got a first-pitch fastball that, in hindsight, he felt he should have greeted with a swing. Instead he took a pitch that he felt was out of the zone, but members of the rotation successfully lobbied on McGreevy’s behalf.
“The first pitch fastball – that’s the one I should have grooved,” Walker said. “Live BP really helps me get an idea of the zone. Coming into spring training, it’s a lot of things. You get your timing back. You’re seeing live pitches again. Everything looks super-fast right now, so you’ve got to slow the game down. Also, one thing that’s not really talked about, is learning the zone again.
“That is what I appreciate about these live BPs,” Walker continued. “When you get on the field you really know what you’re doing, what you’re working with.”
One of the top prospects in all the minors, Walker hit .306 with 19 home runs, 22 steals, an .898 OPS, and a strong .388 on-base percentage this past season for the Cardinals’ Class AA affiliate. The Cardinals have opened a way for Walker to turn a month of spring games into a spot on the opening day roster, though to do so he’ll have to outhit others expected to be in the lineup (any of the three starting outfielders) as well as fellow prospects like Juan Yepez and Burleson.
Both of them are starting Sunday.
In the opening moments of Grapefruit League play, it does appear that manager Oliver Marmol is grouping competitive groups. In the opener Saturday, he put lefties Packy Naughton, Zack Thompson, and Genesis Cabrera into the same game as a way to capture the race for the lefty spots (or spot) in the bullpen. On Sunday, VerHagen and Dakota Hudson are set to follow starter Miles Mikolas, and so is Rule 5 pick Wilking Rodriguez. All of them are competing for some form of right-handed relief role, though Hudson will continue to prepare as a starter so he can be the team’s sixth option entering the season, healthy permitting.
Sunday’s lineup also features Yepez at first base, Burleson in right, Walker in left, and Gorman at second base. All four of them are competing for a spot either in the Cardinals’ lineup (like DH) or off the bench.
By getting them in the same lineup, there is the chance to test them against a similar pitcher, right from the start.
Miami has veteran Johnny Cueto scheduled to pitch.
The Cardinals will be the visiting team for Sunday’s game at Roger Dean Stadium, and that makes it the home debut of the Marlins’ new manager, Schumaker. The former Cardinals World Series champ, leadoff hitter, and bench coach was hired this past winter to lead the Marlins. His staff includes Jay and Mabry, two former Cardinals.
Of note on the Cardinals side the inclusion of first-round pick Cooper Hjerpe on the pitching list. Hjerpe will be with the big-league team throughout the game, and if there is a need for innings from the available young players it’s possible he’ll get in the game. He is not scheduled to appear in the game, and if he does something has gone sideways with the Cardinals’ play for the major-league camp pitchers.
Here is the Cardinals’ lineup:
1. Tommy Edman, SS
2. Tyler O’Neill, CF
3. Juan Yepez, 1B
4. Nolan Arenado, DH
5. Nolan Gorman, 2B
6. Jordan Walker, LF
7. Alec Burleson, RF
8. Andrew Knizner, C
9. Jose Fermin, 3B
Pitcher: Miles Mikolas, RHP
Also on the list to pitcher: Dakota Hudson, RHP; Ryan Helsley, RHP; Jordan Hicks, RHP; Kyle Leahy, RHP; Wilking Rodriguez, RHP; Drew VerHagen, RHP.
Check back throughout the day here at StlToday.com for coverage of the Cardinals’ game against Schumaker, Jay, Mabry, and the Miami Marlins. There will be expanded coverage online and in the pages of the Post-Dispatch. That will include info on the umpires.