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Cardinals consider putting Adam Ottavino in the bullpen

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Adam Ottavino
St. Louis Cardinals' Adam Ottavino delivers a warm-up pitch before pitching in the fifth inning against the Minnesota Twins in a spring training baseball game in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday, March 9, 2010. The Twins beat the Cardinals 7-6. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. • A roster move in the morning and a rainout in the afternoon Sunday narrowed the potential relievers for the Cardinals' bullpen and revealed an unexpected candidate.

Weather forced pitching coach Dave Duncan to rewrite his pitching plan for today's split-squad games, but that did not wash out the experiment he planned for a pitcher emerging as a relief option. Adam Ottavino, a starter and former first-round pick, is scheduled to appear in relief today, a day after the club optioned reliever Josh Kinney to Class AAA Memphis, which cleared a spot in the major-league bullpen that could be filled by a rookie.

"I think the point I want to make is, yeah, if you look at the numbers ... there is one less guy in the mix," manager Tony La Russa said. "What I prefer to do is look at Ottavino on Adam's own merits. He's getting something based on something he did. We could have eight guys in the competition and what Adam is doing has gotten a lot of attention and he deserves another opportunity.

"Another two opportunities," La Russa continued. "Wherever it goes."

Rain swamped the Cardinals' game against Atlanta at Champion Stadium, forcing umpires to call it with the Cardinals leading 1-0 after 1 2/3 innings. The Cardinals held Brad Penny back from his scheduled start because of the rain threat; he'll instead start today against Boston in Jupiter, Fla.

Lefty Jaime Garcia, a candidate for the fifth-starter spot, was to make his first spring start today against Houston in Kissimmee, Fla. Instead, Kyle Lohse will make that start and Garcia will enter in relief. Duncan's plan is for the two pitchers to split that game.

Ottavino will relieve Penny.

The righthander's appearance represents a shift in the plan and reveals what Cardinals coaches think is possible for him. Ottavino's last two appearances were two perfect innings each. He has a 1.08 ERA and five strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings. He last pitched on Friday.

"You've got to pay attention to what he's done the last few times out," Duncan said. "Things are coming together for him. I felt like at the beginning of spring he was getting real close to turning the corner with controlling his delivery. ... He's had these last two outings in which I think he's thrown the ball outstanding."

Kinney, 30, had his spring training interrupted by a right-shoulder impingement. He made three appearances with the major-league team, but Duncan said there would be a shortage of innings for him to work and the righty "needs to throw every third day, at least."

General manager John Mozeliak said the move was made when the club "looked at the big picture and we didn't see how he was going to make the club out of camp."

Kinney's departure leaves the Cardinals with a short list of relievers for the four righthanded spots after closer Ryan Franklin. If the incumbents — Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs and Blake Hawksworth — all make the team the final spot will go one of three ways. Kyle McClellan will return to the bullpen from the rotation, a trade will be made or a rookie, such as Ottavino, will take the spot.

"That's the way it shapes up," La Russa said.

Ottavino was the 30th overall pick in the 2006 draft, coming out of Northeastern University with a reputation for his cannon-like arm and orange-tinted sunglasses. Since, he has offered as much uncertainty as hope for the Cardinals. Erratic mechanics — complicated by the many officials talking in his ear about the right way for him to pitch — sabotaged his consistency.

Duncan took a liking to Ottavino last spring. He took a role in his development late last season. On his own, Duncan contacted Ottavino and instructed the Class AAA starter about settling his delivery.

Ottavino started the year 0-9 with Memphis, including some hard-luck losses. He rebounded with a 7-3 record in the second half, and in the playoffs he won a second-round start with a career-high nine strikeouts.

"He starts off 0-9 and salvages the year says something to you," Duncan said. "Most guys would crumble under that situation. ... He's at the point now where he's not wishing he throws a strike. He's trying to make pitches."

That refined delivery and consistency was clear in his two previous outings. After walking five in his first 4 1/3 innings, Ottavino has retired 12 consecutive batters, walked none and struck out three. He has paired his fastball with a sharp breaking ball and a split-finger fastball.

The Cardinals plan to have fifth-starter candidates Rich Hill and McClellan share Wednesday's game. The righthanded relievers will begin appearing with more regularity, and Ottavino will experiment with shorter appearances on shorter rest. La Russa said with two weeks remaining in spring the time "to get work" is over. The time to evaluate the options has arrived.

That means determining where McClellan fits best for the club, and whether Ottavino or another pitcher is an alternative in the bullpen.

"Answering that question today ... means we're a lot closer to having the (bullpen) decided," La Russa said. "There is still some information to be gleaned. But we're fast approaching that time. If this were next Sunday — by next Sunday you have to pick somebody."

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