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Cardinals 6, Cubs 2

Cardinals pitcher Dakota Hudson (left) talks with Adam Wainwright after he made his major-league debut against the Cubs at Busch Stadium on July 28, 2018. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. • As Dakota Hudson jogged out Wednesday to warm up for what could be the start of something new in his career, teammate Austin Gomber, a challenger for the open spot in the Cardinals’ rotation, asked a favor. Gomber, a lefty, wanted to test-drive a slider against lefthanded hitters in the game and needed Hudson to retire the first six batters in Atlanta’s lineup to get that opportunity.

No pressure.

“He put me in that situation,” Hudson said. “Geez. I’ve faced like six batters before today. That’s just him talking.”

“Of course he did it,” Gomber said.

Hudson got six outs from six Braves and, with the help of a double play, finished his first appearance of spring training on 18 pitches. Atlanta hitters made contact on three pitches in his second inning and each of them produced a ground ball – for a single, for a double play, and for an out. It was the kind of effective, efficient and ruthlessly grounded inning that has pitching coach Mike Maddux and the Cardinals intrigued about how one of last year’s bullpen sensations can be this year’s rotation revelation. But he’s not alone.

On Wednesday, the Cardinals had three of the five pitchers auditioning for a starting job pitch in some form of competition. Hudson and Gomber split the first four scoreless innings in the Cardinals’ 4-0 loss to Atlanta at Roger Dean Stadium. Daniel Ponce de Leon threw a live batting practice session so that he could focus specifically on piloting his curveball. John Gant, who is out of minor-league options, and top prospect Alex Reyes are the other candidates, with Reyes revving back from shoulder surgery and set to appear in a Grapefruit League game as soon as next week.

Carlos Martinez, his arm still in a sling Wednesday, is out for another two weeks and not available to start the season in the rotation, so the Cardinals have what they’ve been talking about all offseason – a chance to showcase and test their pitching depth until one pitcher takes the fifth spot.

A classic competition is stirring: He who pitches best, starts.

“I think we’re looking to see are they pitching the best to be able to go compete,” manager Mike Shildt said. “I think there is something to be said for that. Absolutely.”

Hudson, 24, was part of the Cardinals’ reboot in July as he moved to the majors into the bullpen. In 26 appearances, the righthander had a 2.63 ERA and 19 strikeouts to go with 18 walks. He minimized the damage those walks did by getting two groundouts for every fly out. With his turbo-charged sinker, Hudson has been one of the best groundball pitchers in professional baseball. More than three out of every five balls put in play against him last season were on the ground, and in the minors he had a 2.03 groundout-fly out ratio.

His 1.88 ratio at Class AAA this past season would have ranked 13th in all of full-season minor-league baseball.

“The guy gets ground balls like it’s his job, which it is,” starter Jack Flaherty said. “It’s a power sinker, and he throws it and guys just bury it into the ground. Everything plays off of it, too. It’s just heavy.”

Hudson rode that sinker to a 13-3 record with a 2.50 ERA for the Redbirds, and though he left Triple-A for good at the All-Star break he left enough of an impression to win the Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year award. He had won the Texas League pitcher of the year the previous season. Each time as a starter.

In December, Maddux called Hudson and told him to stretch out, spend the offseason preparing to be a starter because those innings would await him at spring training.

“As a starter,” Maddux repeated. “We’ve got to see that.”

As if a hybrid between the pitcher Dave Duncan celebrated and the pitcher modern baseball demands, Hudson has a groundball-greedy pitch and throws it at 95 mph or swifter. After beginning his start Wednesday with two balls, Hudson threw six consecutive pitches at least 95 mph and got two outs. National League Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr. popped up. Ozzie Albies struck out on three pitches, and Hudson tested him with a new pitch — an elevated fastball.

From there, Hudson started mixing in a cut fastball that he can dial down into a sharper slider, and a breaking ball that’s closer to a curve. A changeup is in the works.

“My sinker is good, but it’s all about protecting your best pitch,” Hudson said. “How do you pitch to where you can stay effective instead of just utilizing it until everybody is able to see it?”

As requested, Hudson finished his outing in time for Gomber to start the third inning and get the lefthanded hitters he wanted to face.

He estimated he threw 10 sliders, getting at least two swings and misses.

Gomber wasn’t comfortable with his slider this past season and couldn’t find a lefty to mentor him until along came one of the finest sliders in the game, an arm’s length away. On the first day of spring training, Gomber asked newly added veteran Andrew Miller about his slider, and how he manipulates it. Gomber wanted a new look for the lefthanded hitters who vexed him. That instruction turned into experimentation and, on Wednesday, implementation. Gomber struck out two and did not allow a hit in his two scoreless innings. The slider gives him a second breaking ball as a starter — and a neutralizer vs. lefthanded hitters as either a reliever or starter.

“Starter or reliever, you’re going to have to face (Christian) Yelich, (Anthony) Rizzo, (Joey) Votto at some point,” Gomber said. “So I’m gearing what we’re doing this year toward getting those guys out whether it’s three times a game or one time a game.”

The Cardinals have reverse-engineered their rotation from the first week of the regular season so that Miles Mikolas has opening day in Milwaukee and the other starters — Jack Flaherty, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and TBD — roll out from there. With five games in five days to start the year, the Cardinals will need a fifth starter before they reach an off day. There’s method to the overlap, Shildt said, which has Gomber and Hudson sharing games and Ponce de Leon scoring innings. Gant already opened his spring with two scoreless innings, and Reyes is on deck.

Eventually the spring innings will tighten and a starter emerge.

“It’s also them saying we don’t know what we need but they gave me an opportunity to pitch in every situation, and I have thrown in every situation as a big leaguer besides a start,” Hudson said. “It felt like it was an opportunity. It still is an opportunity. I don’t know if bullpen or starting would be my path. I’m just taking advantage of being able to get out there and say I’m a ballplayer.”


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