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Cardinals spring training

Cardinals pitcher Luke Gregerson returns to the club house during St. Louis Cardinals spring training on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

CHICAGO — The morning after his first inning back in competition this season, Luke Gregerson woke up convinced it probably was his last.

A 2018 season essentially erased by a litany of ailments and a 2019 spring training slowed by more shoulder trouble had landed him there, on a rehab assignment with High-A Palm Beach on April 4. He threw one inning and allowed two hits. The next day felt such soreness, such lead and age hanging off his shoulder that he wasn’t sure if he’d return to a mound.

“I woke up and I was hurting. I woke up thinking, ‘I’m done,’” Gregerson said Saturday, sitting in the visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field. “If I can’t bounce back after one inning, I can’t do this. Physically, mentally, emotionally, I thought it was pretty close.”

How far he’s come.

Gregerson, 34, rejoined the Cardinals’ active roster Saturday for the first time since July 25. He used 11 appearances on a rehab assignment and a round of live batting practice Wednesday against teammates to convince the team that he was healthy and ready for a role in the bullpen. The Cardinals elected to add Gregerson as an eighth reliever and subtract from the bench, sending outfielder Tyler O’Neill to Class AAA Memphis for regular at-bats as a starter.

In 11 innings in the minors, Gregerson struck out 10 and allowed two runs on seven hits. He did not walk a batter. During his 30-pitch audition for major-league coaches in Washington last week, he did not allow a ball out of the infield. Yet the veteran once signed to be the team’s closer still carries some uncertainty. That starts with his role.

“We have an expectation," manager Mike Shildt said. "He feels and looks like what we signed (to be). Last year didn’t look like him. It just didn’t look like him, didn’t feel like him. It just wasn’t him. . . . He’s ready to go, and a spot will present itself.”

Before the 2018 season, the Cardinals signed Gregerson to a two-year, $11-million deal. Once traded to San Diego in the Khalil Greene deal, Gregerson returned to the Cardinals as one of the most reliable setup pitchers over the previous decade, and the front office advertised him in January 2018 as the closer entering spring training. He started the year on the injured list. Aches, pains, and mileage from previous seasons had left him an assortment of injures, from leg to shoulder. He had knee surgery at one point, and was limited to 12⅔ innings.

In his absence the bullpen evolved, bending toward younger pitchers and pitchers with more firepower.

Having him in the bullpen as a sage presence with a classic sinker-slider mix had an appeal for the Cardinals, and was a draw for Gregerson. After that first rehab appearance, he returned to the Jupiter, Fla., facility, sought out a trainer and asked him to do whatever he could to help him keep trying. Gregerson went through a new workout regimen, one geared toward the upper body and involving some additional flexibility work. That foreboding of forced retirement that he woke up with started to loosen — and pass.

He has done that same regimen every day since.

“Knock on wood. I haven’t been sore. I haven’t been hurt. I haven’t had any negative side effects since,” he said. “What drove me? I was raised (to be competitive) by my dad. Watching him play softball growing up and football, and then getting big enough to play those games with him. Seeing how he went about his business and how he wanted to win. I always wanted to be in the mix. I want to be in that big situation, and at this point in my career, I don’t feel like I want to be done. I kept going.”

MINOR MATTERS

As part of a 24-hit jamboree Friday that tied a franchise record for Class AAA Memphis, infielder Tommy Edman came a double shy of the cycle. The Redbirds’ leadoff hitter went three for six, and four of the first five batters in Memphis’ lineup had three hits. Edmundo Sosa, who also had three hits, drove in a career-high five runs as the Redbirds defeated Nashville, 17-2.

• Lefty Chasen Shreve got the win after striking out two in 1⅓ scoreless innings. Since clearing waivers at the end of spring training, Shreve has a 5.93 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 13⅔ innings spread over 11 appearances.

• Andrew Knizner, the Cardinals’ top catching prospect, has hit .320 and slugged .400 in his first 20 games at Memphis.

• High-A Palm Beach starter Johan Oviedo and outfielder Justin Toerner were named the Cardinals’ pitcher and player of the month, respectively. Oviedo, a 21-year-old righthander from Cuba, went 5-0 with a 1.60 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 33⅔ innings. Toerner, 22, hit .394 and had a .531 on-base percentage in the first 21 games of the season for the PB-Cards. The 28th-round pick out of Cal State-Northridge scored 20 runs, drove in 16, and walked 20 times.

DESCALSO, ETC.

Cubs infielder Daniel Descalso left Saturday’s game in the fourth inning after experiencing soreness in his left ankle. Descalso twisted the joint rounding first base in the first inning before scoring the Cubs’ first run.

•  MLB Productions are encamped at Wrigley Field with both teams this weekend to gather material for a documentary on the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. •  Dexter Fowler (virus) returned to the Cardinals' starting lineup, in center field, after missing five games and finally regaining his appetite Friday.

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Derrick Goold is the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.