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Cardinals notebook: After first-half stumbles, Lars Nootbaar walks away with leadoff spot

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St. Louis Cardinals kick off National League Wild Card series against Philadelphia Phillies

The Cardinals' Lars Nootbaar singles off Phillies starting pitcher Zack Wheeler in the first inning of the first game of the National League Wild Card series on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, at Busch Stadium. 

There were at-bats earlier this season that Lars Nootbaar walked away from knowing he had flung the bat at a pitch trying to force that one hit that might keep him in the majors rather than take the walk that, at worst, would get him to first base.

“Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. That was all the human nature of it,” Nootbaar said Friday morning in the Cardinals’ dugout. “I was assuming something would happen. Just didn’t have the good plan that I should. That’s always been something about my game, and I wasn’t showing it.

“That was when I had the feeling something was a little bit off.”

Nootbaar’s ascension out of an early season hole that reached down to Class AAA Memphis reached its latest peak Friday when he led off for the Cardinals in Game 1 of their wild-card series against Philadelphia. In a season defined by the longevity and large numbers of veteran players, it was a playoff novice who stood atop the Cardinals’ lineup. His ability to launch an extra-base hit aside, Nootbaar quite literally walked away with the assignment.

Since his bingeing on batting practice during the All-Star break, Nootbaar led the Cardinals with 41 walks in the second half. His walk rate (16.7%) ranked fourth in the majors behind 62-homer slugger Aaron Judge, Baltimore rookie Adley Rutschman, and the game’s preeminently patient hitter, Juan Soto (20.7%). Nootbaar flipped his performance, going from 10 walks in his first 101 plate appearances of the season to as many walks (41) as strikeouts (41) in his next 246 plate appearances.

As his OBP rose, so did his spot in the lineup.

For the opener of the best-of-three series against the Phillies, manager Oliver Marmol wanted to get Albert Pujols, “one of the hottest hitters in the game right now,” as many at-bats as possible. So, Marmol hit Pujols second. The choice for leadoff followed, and Nootbaar’s recent at-bats — six doubles, 12 hits, in his past 12 games — put him ahead of other candidates against Phillies right-hander Zack Wheeler. Nootbaar’s potential to slug was appealing, but his willingness to walk, to work counts gave him a steadiness even without hitting.

“I think what we’re seeing as of late will be closer to what we see consistently out of him,” Marmol said. “Swing if you can do damage. You draw more walks and you hit more balls that way. … He’s using the whole field, hitting the ball pard, keeping it off the ground. He will take his walks. He’s selective in what he swings at. Doesn’t have a lot of swing and miss in his game. He does not mind hitting with two strikes.”

That’s where he found himself in the first inning Friday.

Wheeler got ahead 1-2 on Nootbaar before the Cardinals’ left-handed leadoff hitter stung a pitch for a single to right that left his bat at 112 mph. It was the kind of aggressive swing that he worked on hour after hour every day of the All-Star break, trying to swing his way back into the habits he felt had drifted. By unlocking his swing he regained control of the zone and didn’t go searching outside of it for ways to stay in the lineup.

Getting to first was enough.

“Working on the hitting part,” Nootbaar said, “brought back the walking part.”

O’Neill heads to Arizona

Tyler O’Neill, who has missed most of September with a slightly torn hamstring, will join the Arizona Fall League as early as Saturday to get game-speed at-bats and innings in the outfield. The goal is to get him several games to accelerate his return to the lineup. O’Neill would be eligible for the division series Tuesday, if the Cardinals advance.

O’Neill faced teammates in live batting practice sessions this past week in Pittsburgh, but the games will allow him to better condition the short-burst, explosive movement in games.

Teams are able to use the AFL — a finishing school for top prospects — as a rehab assignment in limited cases. The Cardinals did that with Jordan Hicks a year ago, and the Cubs famously had Kyle Schwarber, coming back from knee surgery, appear in the AFL to get game reps before joining the World Series roster in 2016.

Crowd-proofing PitchComThe PitchCom technology widely used throughout Major League Baseball to allow catchers to communicate with pitchers without the use signs will get its first playoff stress test this weekend, and the Cardinals planned ahead by tinkering with how to increase the volume of the audio device to avoid it being drowned out by raucous crowds.

The PitchCom device allows the catcher to press a series of buttons and then an automated voice relays that call to the pitcher. The speaker is in the pitcher’s hatband. The device comes with an earpiece for catchers, but keeping that in place has been tricky for pitchers given all the jostling and moving and, well, pitching they do.

As a workaround, the Cardinals took the tube connection to the earpiece, removed the earpiece so that it hangs just behind the pitcher’s ear and below the hatband. The Cardinals clipped a slot in the tube so that the audio is not muzzled. Adam Wainwright has been using it in his recent starts as a test run.

“I’m sure if we’ve figured it out, every other team has figured out a way to make it louder,” Game 2 starter Miles Mikolas said, and then joked: “Maybe if you’ve got the volume way up and you get that silent moment and you’re going to get the pitch, and it’s going to be so quiet that maybe the batter would hear it. ‘He hit a – game-ending home run, and I heard the PitchCom go fastball inside!’ So that would be a neat one.”

Harper has Yadi souvenir in mind

A standard practice for retiring greats Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina toward the end of every series this season was signing stacks of items sent over from the other clubhouse from other players or people they’ve met through two decades in the majors. Pujols’ personalizes jersey autographs and then lists some of the superlatives of his career, recently updating it from “600 HR” to “700 HR.” Asked if he has souvenirs from either Cardinal great, former MVP Bryce Harper said no, but he has a wish list.

“I would love a Yadi Molina (Air) Jordan chest protector,” Harper said of Molina’s gear, the first by a catcher to have the jumpman logo on it. It’s in gold stitching. “That would be pretty cool. So I might ask for that one.”

Rosters, etc.

The Cardinals’ decision to carry a third lefty, Packy Naughton, for the first-round series meant leaving right-handed Chris Stratton off the 26-man roster submitted Friday morning. The Cardinals, as previously reported, went with 14 position players and 12 pitchers, including all of the starters from the season-ending rotation. … Former Cardinals shortstop Edmundo Sosa (hamstring) was included on the Phillies’ 26-man roster submitted for the best-of-three wild card series. … Longtime Cardinals broadcaster and team Hall of Fame member Mike Shannon attended Friday’s game, as did the commissioner of baseball Rob Manfred. The commissioner also planned to attend the Mets game in Queens on Friday night. … Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith threw out the ceremonial first pitch for Game 1. Matt Adams has the honor for Game 2.

Staff writer Daniel Guerrero contributed reporting for this article.

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