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Gallegos returns, says he's 'ready' as Cardinals' bullpen takes shape

Gallegos returns, says he's 'ready' as Cardinals' bullpen takes shape

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First official workout of Cardinals spring training

Cardinals pitcher Giovanny Gallegos stretches at spring training on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, in Jupiter, Fla. (Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com)

The word Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos used at least three times to describe why he drove coast to coast from Jupiter, Fla., to his home near the Gulf of California in Mexico was “scared.” He wasn’t comfortable flying with a virus in the air. He wanted to move fast because he had been alerted borders may be closing.

“I’m scared. I heard some people tell me, ‘Gio, you need to come back to Mexico very quickly because the border is closing,’” Gallegos said. “I was scared about that situation. . . . I don’t know what happens with the virus in the airport. I’m scared (there). I don’t care how much time I take to get back to Mexico. Just tried to be safe.”

He stopped three times on a trip the map says is nearly 2,500 miles.

It could take more than 35 hours to drive.

Seems short compared to how long it took him to get back to the team.

Gallegos, a revelation as a rookie a year ago for the Cardinals, joined workouts Sunday for the first time after a battery of tests cleared him for participation. Gallegos had difficulties getting clearance to travel from Mexico to St. Louis, and his arrival was delayed more than two weeks, and then another 24 hours because of undefined protocols this weekend. The righthander kept private the reason for his absence and did not elaborate on whether his inability to travel was related to the virus.

He said he doesn’t “like to talk about that situation right now,” stressing he’s “so happy to be here and ready to compete.”

Gallegos threw a light bullpen session Sunday morning at Busch Stadium so coaches could get a feel for where he was physically with less than a week before opening day. Gallegos had been able to throw regularly and off a mound during his time in Mexico, and pitching coach Mike Maddux told manager Mike Shildt it was clear Gallegos had maintained arm strength.

“The good news is he’s here, and also he’s healthy,” Shildt sad. “It’s not a window that we feel has to be opened or closed. . . . Clearly we’ve got to make decisions.”

During Sunday’s intrasquad game, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber, pitchers on a starter’s schedule in spring, pitched a single inning — a sign they’ve been shifted to bullpen roles. John Gant has, too, by his assignments. All three can be used in shorter, possibly higher-leverage bursts. Ponce de Leon experienced a spasm in his neck that brought attention from the team’s athletic trainer, but he continued to pitch and Shildt said it’s not expected to linger into a concern.

The Cardinals intend to split Wednesday’s exhibition game pitching between Miles Mikolas and Carlos Martinez. They have been linked in their outings in part because Martinez represents variable insurance. With Mikolas returning from an arm injury, the Cardinals have Martinez lined up for that spot in the rotation, if needed. If not, the Cardinals could quickly shift Martinez to closer, the role he successfully manned in 2019.

Gallegos was a leading candidate for the ninth inning back in March, but his late start to “summer camp” gives the Cardinals reasons to prepare alternatives. His readiness will influence other roles.

“I think that’s fair,” Shildt said. “We just got him into camp, and for me and Mad Dog (Maddux) we’ve been thinking about different roles. The role that Gio had last year may be unfair to put him in this year right out of the gate. So, that clearly creates opportunity for other guys. I think that’s a fair questions, and it’s reasonable to think it changes things up a little bit to start.”

Gallegos, 28, appeared in 66 games for the Cardinals last year and had a 2.31 ERA. He had one save — doing most of his work shepherding leads to the closer. Gallegos had one of the best strikeout rates (11.3 per nine) and best strikeout-to-walk rates (1.9) for his role in the majors. As a bullpen, the Cardinals ranked fourth in the NL with a 9.74 strikeout/nine rate, and the bullpen’s 3.88 ERA was the sixth best in baseball and the best in the NL east of the Rocky Mountains.

They needed it to be with an offense that made slim leads a habit and put the Cardinals in position to lead the majors with 52 saves.

Of the Cardinals’ pitchers with strikeout rates better than 9.0, all remain with the team except for Dominic Leone. But not all are available to the team.

John Brebbia (elbow) and Jordan Hicks (elbow, opt-out) will not pitch in 2020. Two power possibilities for the bullpen, Genesis Cabrera and Alex Reyes, returned Saturday after testing positive for COVID-19 and spending two weeks in quarantine. The Cardinals do not expect either to be available for opening day. That leaves Andrew Miller, who has been sharp in camp, with his 11.5 K/9 rate, alongside Gallegos (11.3), Martinez (9.9), and Ponce de Leon (9.6) as appealing late-inning candidates.

Rookie Junior Fernandez, who had 16 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings for the Cardinals last season, continues to be positioned for a larger role in the bullpen but has had lurching results. He’s walked seven of the past eight batters he’s faced in practice games, including three Sunday.

“I think he’s trying to do too much, trying to be a little too fine,” Shildt said. “He’s just not been able to dial-in for strike 1 consistently. That’s one of the biggest asks we have for our pitchers. Whatever you have get it over the plate, get it over early, control the counts.”

With the additions of Cabrera, Reyes, and Gallegos, the Cardinals have 20 pitchers in their Busch camp. The teams intends to take 16 or 17 pitchers onto the 30-man roster for Friday’s opener at home against Pittsburgh. Two of the 20 pitchers, Kodi Whitley and Johan Oviedo, are not on the 40-man roster. But with Cabrera and Reyes unlikely for opening day, that leaves the Cardinals to choose 17 from 18. Lefty Brett Cecil is trying to use a new arm slot to make the team, while Fernandez searches for command and rookie Jacob Woodford is an obvious long-relief candidate.

The Cardinals are likely to make rolling decisions on the bullpen as Cabrera and Reyes become ready and performance decides other moves.

Gallegos becomes a hinge.

His expedient progress influences other decisions.

That is why the Cardinals took comfort from another word he repeatedly used during his first time talking to media since starting camp: “Ready.”

“I tried to be ready to help in the season,” Gallegos said. “I feel 100 percent ready. I try to be ready for any situation and pitch. I try to be ready for the situation — closing the game, middle of the game, I try to be ready every day.”

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