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Cardinals notebook: With division title clinched, seeding won't change, but roles can

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St. Louis Cardinals vs Milwaukee Brewers

Brewers second baseman Kolten Wong prepares to take the throw as Cardinals center fielder Dylan Carlson slides safely into second in the sixth inning of a game at American Family Field in Milwaukee on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses the Cardinals’ postseason berth and what’s next for the club. Plus, a happy birthday shoutout to former Big Red great Mel Gray! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

MILWAUKEE — Center fielder Dylan Carlson doubled and scored twice from the left side of the plate in Tuesday’s clincher, further illustrating how limited his swing may have been by a hand injury and hinting at one way the Cardinals intend to use their six remaining games.

“He’s hitting second for a reason,” manager Olive Marmol said.

That reason is to get Carlson as many at-bats against right-handed pitching in the near future to determine if he’s regain his swing from that side and can be the Cardinals’ everyday center fielder when the postseason starts next week. Because they can. For the first time in at least a decade, the Cardinals have seven regular-season games to experiment and, win or lose or rainout, their position in the standings will not change.

The Cardinals clinched the National League Central division title with a 6-2 win Tuesday night and will enter the NL playoffs as the third seed. They’ll host the sixth seed in a best-of-three series, with all games at Busch Stadium Oct. 7-9. The Phillies had the lead ahead of the Brewers for the sixth seed as play began Wednesday.

Marmol wants to use the time to get regulars rest, give some players looks in new spots, and not lose any of the crispness that helped them clinch with a week to go.

“It’s a combination,” Marmol said. “It’s a really good balance of keeping guys sharp and getting them rested, and you don’t want to lose the edge of winning. ... Will certain lineups look different? Are we going to rest guys? Will outings look shorter? Will we use our ‘pen a little differently? Yes, to all of those. But you still don’t miss on the small details of the game. That’s the stuff that when I say sharp, you keep those things sharp.”

Jack Flaherty will start Friday and could get two game appearances before the playoffs begin, possibly as a preview to a second-round assignment if the Cardinals advance. Jordan Montgomery and Adam Wainwright will start Saturday and Sunday, respectively, though how deep into the games they’ll pitch is to be determined.

The Cardinals began the stretch with a rookie-infused lineup that tagged in Juan Yepez at third base and Alec Burleson at first base. But Paul Goldschmidt remained in the lineup at designated hitter. Tommy Edman got a breather.

In the coming days, the Cardinals want to see how lefties Zack Thompson and JoJo Romero do in specific spots that come close to simulating playoff use. They’ll do the same for Burleson and Yepez as late-game pinch hitters. Shortstop Paul DeJong is going to get a good stretch of games to see where his swing can be for the team off the bench in a postseason series. And Carlson will get a chance to show recent success vs. right-handed pitchers is the resumption of trend derailed by a hand injury that put him on the injured list.

Marmol agreed that some of the targeted use of players and intentional assignments is similar to how a team might use the final days of spring training.

But there’s more at stake, he stressed.

“We’re in the regular season,” Marmol said. “And I hate losing.”

Molina pinch-hits for Schumaker

Yadier Molina spent the entirety of Tuesday’s clincher beside Marmol in the spot usually reserved for bench coach Skip Schumaker. Molina filled in for Schumaker’s absence.

The former Cardinals leadoff hitter and current Cardinals bench coach remained back in California this week so he could be with father during an illness. Third-base coach Ron “Pop” Warner took over the logistics of bench coach, manning the roster and organizing other elements of game management and pregame workouts. But it was Molina who got the spot at Marmol’s left hand — and nine innings of strategy conversation that went with it.

Molina will manage a team in Venezuela this winter, and he’s expected to be part of the leadership for Puerto Rico’s team in the World Baseball Classic.

“It was fun,” Marmol said. “Man, that is one of the moments I’ll look back like (on) cool moments of the year. A homer. An accomplishment. It was cool to sit there and talk strategy. Let him know how I’m thinking. And he asked a lot of questions. Just being able to explain the way I think out the game.”

Cardinals set to fete Molina, Pujols

The Cardinals will have a special ceremony to honor the careers of Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols before the start of Sunday’s game, the regular-season finale at Busch Stadium. The on-field presentation will begin at 12:30 p.m. , 45 minutes before the scheduled first pitch of the afternoon game against the Pirates. Gates will open at 10:45 a.m.

The coverage will be carried live on the team’s broadcast partners.

The Cardinals were initially unsure about how to acknowledge the two players if Sunday’s game was going to be meaningful in the standings and both players focused on that day’s competition. Clinching early allowed the teams to set on a time and an extended program for two of the club’s all-time greats. Both Molina and Pujols have said (and repeated, multiple times) that they are retiring at the conclusion of the 2022 season.

In their final regular-season visit to Milwaukee, the Brewers made $5,000 donations to the charities run by Molina and Pujols. On the road trip, the duo received surfboards with their likeness on them as gifts in San Diego, embroidered golf club bags in Los Angeles and the donations at American Family Field.

O’Neill, Hicks near decision point

Reliever Jordan Hicks, who has missed two weeks with a stiff neck and arm fatigue, will throw a bullpen Friday, repeat if possible Sunday and could slip into next week’s series at Pittsburgh if the Cardinals want to see him appear in a game before the postseason starts. That will all depend on how his arm responds and recovers to the uptick in intensity and work over the next five days.

Hicks felt strong after playing catch for the first time, and he increased the distance of his throws to 150 feet back at Busch Stadium on Wednesday.

Outfielder Tyler O’Neill (hamstring strain) has been able to hit in the batting cage and begin straight-line running. The Cardinals do not yet know if he will be available before the end of the regular season, though they are keeping that possibility open for the Gold Glove winner.

“My head’s going to be wrapped around yes, until they say no,” Marmol said.

Slow pitches, young managers & more

The slowest pitch thrown in the majors this season does not count in the contest between Wainwright and Miles Mikolas for who can land the slowest curve of the season. Mikolas’ 60.2 mph curveball Tuesday night is the slowest pitch by a pitcher thrown this season in the majors. But it does not count because it was not a strike, Wainwright ruled. ... Ryan Helsley did throw a strike at 104.2 mph Tuesday night as he closed a 6-2 victory. That is the fastest pitch thrown this season, meaning for the first time since such data was tracked it’s possible the fastest and slowest pitch of a season will be thrown in the same game by teammates. ... With Tuesday’s clinch, Marmol became the youngest manager to win a division title since division play began in 1969. Marmol, at 36 years and 87 days, edged Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, whose 1970 Reds won the division when he was 36 years, 207 days old. ... Andre Pallante is the first rookie with 50 innings as a starter and 50 innings as a reliever since Hisanori Takahashi with the 2010 Mets and only the sixth rookie to hit the marks since 1993, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

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