PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Until four months ago, Cardinals pitcher Connor Thomas wasn’t even on the club’s 40-man roster. On Wednesday, he found himself in a spring training pitcher’s duel with three-time Cy Young Award and former MVP winner Justin Verlander.
Thomas might not have outshined the New York Mets’ ace pitcher, but Thomas didn’t back down and the Cardinals eventually came out on the winning end, 4-1, in front of an announced crowd of 6,804 for a Grapefruit League game at Clover Park.
Asked when it hit him that he was in a back and forth with Verlander, Thomas said, “Probably after the second (inning) when I saw his velocity start ticking up a little bit. I’m like, ‘It’s turning into a game for sure.’ That’s what I live for, the competition. Going up against the best of the best. I feel like it fueled both of us. It just kept the pace of the game going, and we were thriving off of it. It felt good.”
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A left-hander from Tifton, Georgia, Thomas tossed a highly-efficient outing in his third start of the spring. He pitched four scoreless innings, allowed just two hits and struck out two. He didn’t walk a batter, and he needed just 38 pitches (28 strikes) to get through the outing.
Thomas proved so efficient that he threw nearly 40 more pitches in the bullpen as he continued to build up his pitch count with the season approaching. Thomas said he wouldn’t called the outing his “nastiest,” but he did describe it as “by far my best outing of the spring.”
He also credited luck with playing a big part in the results, pointing out that he felt like he allowed softer contact at times in his previous outings, but those ground balls found holes.
The opposite proved true on Wednesday.
Of the 10 balls put in play against Thomas by Mets hitters, eight were groundouts, one pop-up and one lineout.
Named the Arizona Fall League Pitcher of the Year in November, he’s drawn attention for the addition of a cutter to his pitch arsenal. He didn’t turn to that pitch often against the Mets. He threw just four cutters, while leaning heavily on his sinker (17) and changeup (10).
“Going into today, I wanted to work on just throwing the changeup for strikes,” Thomas said. “In outings past, I’ve been trying to make it super-nasty. That’s led to me throwing consistent balls with it.
"Today, I just focused on throwing it for strikes. Whether it’s good or bad, just throwing it for strikes because I know it plays up. Sure enough the more I did that today, the better my stuff played. Then the cutter kind of came around the third and fourth innings when I needed to get them off of my sinker.”
In his previous two starts, Thomas gave up a total of four runs on 10 hits in five innings in outings against the Mets (Feb. 27) and Washington Nationals (March 4).
“He’s on the ground a ton,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “He just pounds the zone, and guys beat it into the ground. That’s exactly what he did. He didn’t even have to use the cutter a whole lot because of a lot of balls in play early. The changeup was a good pitch for him. The slider worked for him.
“Overall, just a ton of early groundballs. There’s going to be days when they’re right at people, and that was today.”
Verlander held the Cardinals to one hit in five innings. Verlander struck out eight.
The lone hiccup for Verlander came when Alec Burleson roped a leadoff double into right-center field to start the fifth inning. In the second inning, Burleson lined a comebacker off the lower leg of Verlander. The right-handed regrouped quickly enough to gather the ball and throw Burleson out at first base, but the comebacker necessitated a visit from the trainer as well as Mets manager Buck Showalter.
The Mets scored first courtesy of a solo home run by catcher Tomas Nido off of relief pitcher Drew VerHagen to start the bottom of the fifth inning. The Cardinals scored a pair of runs in the sixth and a pair in the seventh and took a 4-1 lead going into the final two innings.
• Outfielder Dylan Carlos went 1 for 3 with an RBI double and a run scored. He drove in the Cardinals’ first run of the game in the sixth inning.
• Juan Yepez also went 1 for 3 with a double and an RBI. He started at designated hitter with Burleson starting at first base.
• Kramer Robertson (RBI single) and Victor Scott (sacrifice fly) also drove in runs for the Cardinals. Scott, a fifth-round draft pick in 2022 out of West Virginia University, recorded his first RBI in a big-league spring training game.
• Relief pitcher Ryan Helsley retired the side in order on three strikeouts on 14 pitches in the seventh inning. He has now recorded six consecutive strikeouts in his last two appearances. His hardest pitch on Wednesday registered a velocity of 98.4 miles per hour.
• Reliever Wilking Rodriguez, a Rule 5 Draft selection, pitched a scoreless inning but worked around two walks in the sixth. He also struck out two batters, including the final batter of the inning to strand both runners. He has allowed one run in six appearances (six innings) so far this spring.