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Cardinals notebook: Shaping bullpen to face Phillies in playoffs begins with two moves

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St. Louis Cardinals pound the Pittsburgh Pirates 9-0 in home opener

St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol congratulates Cardinals relief pitcher Ryan Helsley (56) on the Cardinals 9-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in their home opener on Thursday, April, 7, 2022, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo.

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses Miles Mikolas, who has a 2.13 ERA in two starts vs. the Phillies this year. Plus, a happy birthday shoutout to Josie Bissett! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

PITTSBURGH — For the Cardinals to get off to the postseason start they want Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies, they’ll have to do what they could not during the regular season.

The Phillies’ planned starter for Game 1 of the wild-card series at Busch Stadium, right-hander Zack Wheeler, did not allow a run in 14 innings pitched against the Cardinals, and all nine of the Cardinals’ hits off Wheeler were singles. Wheeler went 2-0 against the Cardinals, claiming half of the Phillies’ wins in their seven games vs. the Cardinals. The lineup Wheeler will face Friday is different than the one the Cardinals sported when they played the Phillies, and manager Oliver Marmol said his decisions won’t be guided by such limited innings, regardless of his team’s limited production in them.

“I usually think of these games as a clean slate,” the manager said. “I don’t go into it (thinking) we’ve been really good against this guy or this guy has been really good against us. I think it’s a very high-stakes environment and we’ll see how it goes. I don’t (think), man, this guy. Obviously, we’ll dive deep into what he does, how he does it, how he does it against us — that type of stuff. How he’s done against us in the past on a Tuesday in Philly at 1 p.m.?

“Yeah, I put little stock in that.”

A day after the Phillies were confirmed as their opponent the best-of-three wild-card series, the Cardinals began their moves for the postseason Wednesday afternoon — two overtly and two more subtly.

In order to give them a rested bullpen for Friday, the Cardinals promoted rookie Matthew Liberatore to start the regular-season finale at PNC Park and give them bulk innings. The Cardinals also activated Jordan Hicks (tired arm) from the injured list to see him in a game before calling on him to handle a playoff inning. The catch with each move was the player being removed from the roster will not be eligible to return for the first two rounds of the postseason. The Cardinals made their choices based on recent performance and overlapping roles, optioning lefty JoJo Romero and right-hander Dakota Hudson to the minor-league roster.

Both will be available immediately as an injury replacement if needed, and they will continue to work out and travel with the team.

The Cardinals will have to remove two more players to downsize to a playoff-ready 26-man roster, but the final two players do not have to stay a minimum 10 or 15 days off the roster, depending on position. By removing Romero, the Cardinals revealed they’re leaning toward rookie Zack Thompson pairing with Steven Matz as the lefties in the bullpen, and they’re deciding whether a third lefty is appealing in a short series against the Phillies lineup, which includes left-handed hitters such as slugger Kyle Schwarber and reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper.

At PNC Park hours before first pitch Wednesday, the Cardinals had lefties Packy Naughton and Genesis Cabrera face teammates Tyler O’Neill, Nolan Gorman and Yadier Molina. Each lefty was being scrutinized for a roster spot.

“What we just saw out there was purposeful,” Marmol said. “Having them both throw to the same hitters and see how that went — it’s not just getting work in. All of this is a competition that was a very obvious one. If you know you’re going to carry Matz and Thompson, for example, then who is the third lefty and are they ahead of (right-hander Andre) Pallante in that lane? Are they ahead of Thompson?”

Or are they an alternate for Matz if his role expands to multiple innings?

Those are the options in play for the Cardinals as they explore how best to use their pitching depth to counter the Phillies’ lineup and answer the Phillies’ top-end pitching strength.

When last the Cardinals played the Phillies during series bunched together in early July, they had not yet acquired starters Jordan Montgomery or Jose Quintana, both of whom could start in the upcoming series. Wheeler pitched against the Cardinals in back-to-back starts on July 3 in Philly and July 8 in St. Louis. Only once did he face Brendan Donovan as a leadoff hitter. Lars Nootbaar, one of the Cardinals’ most consistent OBP providers in the second half, was not in the lineup in either game. And Wheeler never faced Albert Pujols.

Back then, the Cardinals did not have Pujols in the lineup all that often against right-handed pitching, and, as Marmol noted, “Albert wasn’t the best hitter in the big leagues at the time.” The lineup Wheeler sees Friday, the lineup the Cardinals will use to try and end his scoreless streak against them, will feature something those early July days rarely did against a right-handed pitcher: Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Pujols, three right-handed hitters in the middle.

“That’s why speaking in absolutes (stinks),” Marmol said. “You have to be able to adjust to what you’re seeing. It’s not looking like that’s our best shot, so we’re switching to this. I feel like we’ve done that all year. (Pujols) has proven he’s going to take a really good at-bat regardless of who is on the mound. Go get it.”

Helsley to test finger Thursday

The right middle finger closer Ryan Helsley jammed into the turf Tuesday night remained stiff and sore Wednesday afternoon, assuring that the right-hander would wait to play catch and test it Thursday. He was previously scheduled to be off from game duty Wednesday so that he could back-to-back days before Friday’s playoff opener.

Helsley likened the sensation to having a basketball glance off a fingertip, leaving it tender and unable to completely bend. Such limited range of motion would affect how he can grip several pitches, including how he applies pressure on his breaking ball.

“Another day and it will be fine, will help push out the inflammation,” Helsley said. “Whether I’m 100% with it or not, I’ll be ready to go. It will be fine.”

Gallegos, Arenado, and more

The two-year extension that setup man Giovanny Gallegos signed this week guarantees him $11 million with a $500,000 signing bonus, a $4.5 million salary for 2023, a $5.5 million salary for 2024 and a $500,000 buyout for the team’s option in 2024. The total value of the contract can climb to $20.5 million, according to a source familiar with the contract. To do so, Gallegos must max out his games-finished bonuses in 2024 to increase his 2025 team-option salary above its $6.5 million base. ... The slight soreness in Arenado’s quadriceps muscle alleviated Tuesday night, and the All-Star started the final regular-season game so that he could get four innings in the field and two at-bats before the playoffs. He had an RBI single to finish with 103 RBIs, his seventh consecutive full season with at least 100. ... A throwing error in the seventh inning gave the Cardinals 66 for the season, tying the franchise low set in 2019. ... Arenado participated in his 42nd double play to set a new record for Cardinals third basemen, surpassing the record held since 1958 by Ken Boyer. Arenado got his 42 in 1,120 innings at third, while Boyer played more than 1,270 at third in his record-setting season.

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