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Cardinals notebook: Naughton's 'courage,' Marmol's pledge, and seeking relief for bullpen

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Cardinals start series with Padres

The Cardinals' Packy Naughton pitches in the first inning of a game against the Padres on Monday, May 30, 2022, at Busch Stadium.

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman looks at the state of the St. Louis Cardinals. Also, a happy birthday shoutout to Jose Jimenez! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

ATLANTA — When he reached the dugout steps after pitching a perfect fifth inning Tuesday night, Cardinals lefty Packy Naughton assured his manager he could throw the sixth, too, and save a fellow reliever for future outs. He asked Oliver Marmol to “trust me.”

Marmol responded with a pledge of his own.

The trust would be mutual.

“And I said, ‘You take this inning and you’re not getting sent down,’” Marmol explained. “There’s time when I’ll figure out today. You did your job yesterday. I’ll figure it out today. You’re not going to go down just because you did your job. Those guys who are in that role know, ‘If I empty out the tank, I go down.’ It’s just part of the business: You don’t have enough for tomorrow, and if I empty the tank I’m useless to you tomorrow, and I go out. I wanted him to be aware, ‘Hey, you are wearing one for the team right here. You’ll be here tomorrow.’”

Naughton got the Cardinals out of a bind in the fourth inning, pitched 2⅓ scoreless innings and struck out three in Atlanta’s 7-1 victory. Crucially, he allowed them to avoid using right-hander Jordan Hicks. That had a twofold benefit: Hicks was available, if needed, Wednesday (he wasn’t used in Atlanta’s 3-0 victory), and the top of the Braves’ order did not see a reliever they might face later in the series in a closer game.

The appearance was Naughton’s fourth of the month, including his three consecutive appearances in Philadelphia.

Choosing his word carefully, Marmol said the outing showed “courage.”

Naughton had another word for it.

“I’m a rookie and it’s my job, and sometimes you go out there and you can get sent down, and you’ve got to trust yourself,” Naughton said.

There is a third description that fits, too.

What Naughton did was a need.

The brief outings from starters have stretched middle relievers and left long relievers to cover those innings. Naughton, rookie James Naile and right-hander Johan Oviedo have done well when asked to patch leaks. But it’s not a model the Cardinals want to continue. Even with solid outings from those three, the Cardinals don’t want to develop a shadow rotation to follow a few starters into games.

“That’s not sustainable,” Marmol said. “It’s by necessity, not by design.”

The trade market is only starting to stir for teams, and already on Wednesday two starters who could be available to buyers had injury concerns. Reds right-hander Tyler Mahle went on the injured list because of a shoulder strain, and Oakland’s Frankie Montas received treatment for a sore shoulder.

Mahle would be a solid fit for the Cardinals’ wants, but they’ve been reluctant to do such costly deals within the division. The trade deadline is Aug. 2, and the Cardinals are exploring possible additions who bring certain innings to the rotation.

But the innings don’t stop while they shop.

So they’ll turn to who they’ve got.

“Even if he said, ‘You’re going to go the rest of the game and you might get sent down.’ Well, then, all right, I’m here right now,” Naughton said. “What I can do right now is get our team outs, so it’s in a good spot. Today’s today. Live in the moment.”

The Woodford Plan

After a meeting with Marmol and members of the pitching strategy staff, Jake Woodford threw a lengthy bullpen session Wednesday at Truist Park, all under the eye of Marmol, pitching coach Mike Maddux, and, for much of it, several fellow pitchers such as veteran Adam Wainwright.

Marmol said he “feels good about Woody’s plan.”

A plan is better than the perplexing spot Woodford’s been in.

Stashed in the limbo of taxi squad for this trip and kept shuttling between Class AAA and the majors this season, Woodford has pitched well. However, he has not surfaced in a defined role — even when the Cardinals have gone hunting for right-handed relief or spot starters.

In 11 appearances for the Cardinals this season, he has a 3.05 ERA and 11 strikeouts against eight walks in 20⅔ innings. The team went 4-2 in his six games (five starts) last September and Woodford had a 2.51 ERA in those games, prompting one official to suggest the pitcher was “done with Triple A.” Yet, there he’s been sporadically this season for six appearances with Class AAA Memphis.

As part of the plan, Woodford will be back with the Redbirds on Saturday, starting for them at Durham, North Carolina. That will give him innings to work on his assigned improvements and length the Cardinals could need available at a moment’s notice. Part of the closed-door discussion with coaches Wednesday was a detailed way to improve the consistency of Woodford’s breaking ball — especially the slider. Things that are, as Marmol said, “what he needs to have sustained success at this level.”

“I feel like I’ve been pitching well,” Woodford said after his workout Wednesday. “I feel like I’m in a good spot.”

Rehab assignment roundup

Drew VerHagen (hip impingement) threw six pitches, all of them strikes, and retired the three batters he faced Wednesday night in his first rehab start. VerHagen’s brief appearance came with High-A Peoria, and the Cardinals want him to get closer to 40 pitches before a return.

• Outfielder Corey Dickerson (calf strain) singled in his first at-bat, walked, and finished one-for-two in his return to Class AAA Memphis’ lineup and resumption of his rehab assignment. He will next play a full game to see how the leg responds after a setback the previous time he tried.

• For Memphis, outfielder Tyler O’Neill was hit by a pitch Wednesday night but remained in the game to log his nine innings. The Cardinals expect him to rejoin the lineup this weekend at home if he recovers well from his games with the Redbirds.

• T.J. McFarland (COVID) struck out a batter and pitched a perfect inning for Memphis in his first rehab appearance.

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