FORT MYERS, Fla. • As he recently retraced what carried him to the majors, from a Rule 5 pick to the Cardinals’ leading fireman, Matt Bowman remained aware of how a heavy workload played a supporting role in his rise.
It took someone else’s to clear a job for him.
It took having one to keep it.
“I don’t ignore the reasons why some of my opportunities have presented themselves,” Bowman said. “You don’t want to sit here and say you’re the exception to the rule. It has been the case for me that the term rubber-armed gets thrown around, a lot. At the same time I know part of my usefulness is that I’m available. It’s my ability to be available.”
Bowman became the first of the Cardinals’ strategically delayed relievers to appear in a spring game Monday when he pitched a scoreless inning against Minnesota. And even that wasn’t scripted. Bowman traveled with the Cardinals across Florida’s peninsula for the start of a rare three-day trip in spring training, and on Monday the righthander was assigned to be available but not given an inning. The Cardinals only wanted to use him if they got in a bind. Getting out of them has been his specialty.
When prospect Dakota Hudson walked a batter in the fourth inning, Bowman entered with two on and no outs. He needed 11 pitches to get three outs.
Neither runner scored.
“Give him that chance,” manager Mike Matheny said.
Just not many of them.
The Cardinals have slowed the schedules for a handful of relievers, most of whom were pressed into expanded duty a year ago in the bullpen. Sam Tuivailala, Brett Cecil, Bowman and newcomers Dominic Leone and Luke Gregerson have all been eased into the Grapefruit League schedule as either backups — used, if necessary, like Bowman — or not listed at all. Cecil threw a bullpen session Sunday and had his spring delayed by a family matter. Matheny said the plan was to hold him back, anyway. Workload is on their mind, already. Especially for Bowman.
“Slow him down. We know what he can do. We know where he is,” Matheny said. “Don’t blow the doors off. But get ready. He’s competing.”
As a starter in the Mets’ system, before the Cardinals’ plucked him free in the Rule 5 draft, Bowman mused that he would be a good fit for an extinct rotation: a four-man group. He felt his arm bounced back in time to throw four or five innings every four days, and that its resiliency wasn’t maximized by trying to throw six or seven innings every five days.
“It turns out,” he said, “the bullpen is actually the solution.”
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The Cardinals acquired him in December 2015 and, by rule, had to keep him on the active roster all season to keep his rights. They did and could have optioned him to Class AAA at any time in 2017, but didn’t because of the role he had carved for himself. It was a role he won because the pitcher who had it before him started to see his performance fray, and then his elbow did. For more than three years, Seth Maness cleaned up the Cardinals’ messes with a well-placed groundball. His early games featured so many double plays that a question in the clubhouse was whether he had more outs than pitches.
Maness appeared in 215 games in his first three seasons, and 29 more in 2016 before his velocity sagged and his elbow gave way. He needed surgery. Similarly, Kevin Seigrist had 81 appearances in 2015 and 148 total in the two seasons before arm trouble and a dip in production. The Cardinals’ interest in several free-agent relievers was measured through a workload lens, too, as Addison Reed and Bryan Shaw each had had more than 150 appearances since 2016.
Those experiences and those evaluations echo for the Cardinals with Bowman. He had 134 appearances the previous two years, ranking 22nd among righthanders. He made 75 appearances in 2017, and only five righthanders had more.
But, he had fewer innings (58 2/3) than, say, Shaw (76 2/3).
Bowman threw fewer pitches (977) than, say, Corey Knebel (1,359).
“When you look at what’s done in the past, there are two ways to look at this,” said general manager Michael Girsch. “There is the one way that says he’s been used a lot and we have to be super-careful with him this year. There is another way that says he’s been used a lot and he’s shown that he can actually handle it while some other guys haven’t shown they can. So we should feel more comfortable that he’s done it before.”
Or, as Bowman put it, his resilience “might fill the talent gap.”
It’s as much his game as a slider is Tyler Lyons’ or a curveball is Adam Wainwright’s. And, as a result, Bowman works to maintain it.
The righthander, keen to his workload, pushed back his workouts this past winter and took more time to rest before starting to throw. He didn’t appear to have any slip in velocity Monday as he worked 90-91 mph with his fastball.
Bowman adopted a resistance workout with a large band years ago, and he does that twice a day during the season to assure his arm is limber and ready for whatever assignment arrives. He also keeps in constant conversation with Matheny about how he’s feeling, about any hesitations he might have. Appearances alone are not a measure, and brevity can be essential.
In the fourth inning Monday, he got a hard groundball with his sixth pitch that could have produced a double play. A bobble almost cost him both outs. The lack of a double play cost him five more pitches.
He used the five pitches to show he can still do what’s expected.
The Cardinals will save him if it means he can do that longer — and that the workload that got him his job isn’t what costs him it.
“I think it would be a bit of a mistake for me to think things are set with the bullpen,” Bowman said. “It got actually quite crowded. I’ll try and be smart about whenever they have me throw. But I know I do need to show them I’m more than ready and that I still have the skillset I had last year. I have to show I can evolve to fill the roles they need.”