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Hurry up and work: After a week of rainouts, staying sharp, and waiting, Nootbaar, Sosa make '22 debuts

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St. Louis Cardinals report to Spring Training

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar takes live batting practice the day before the official start of spring training on Sunday, March 13, 2022, at the Cardinals training facility in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

MILWAUKEE — At his locker Thursday afternoon, Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar had his phone in one hand and a pencil in the other, poised above a spiral notebook and ready to take notes. On the phone, Nootbaar had loaded videos of Brewers relievers, and he was playing and replaying through them to watch in two dimensions what he had not seen for more than a week in three dimensions.

“Just trying to do everything I can to put myself in the best position for success,” Nootbaar explained. “To be ready when my name does get called.”

Twenty-four hours later it did.

Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol unleashed the bench Friday, writing Nootbaar in at designated hitter and infielder Edmundo Sosa into the lineup at shortstop for their first starts of the regular season. Their appearances came the day after right-hander Drew VerHagen pitched 2 2/3 innings and meant all 28 players on the active roster had appeared in a game. Nootbaar (with a run) and Sosa (with a single) participated in the Cardinals’ four-run first inning Friday against Milwaukee.

For the two position players, the at-bats were their first since the end of spring training. They played almost every single day of the condensed camp and then went eight days without a swing against a pitcher. It was hurry up and — well, not wait. Hurry up and work.

“As far as staying sharp, they both have a pretty good routine defensively and in the cage to stay ready,” Marmol said. “Does it substitute for the live at-bats? No. Is it as close as we can get? Yes.”

For Nootbaar, that has meant watching games when possible — and not just Cardinals games. He’ll dial up a game on his phone to watch the pitcher, or he’ll flip video he can access on his phone or tablet, any of it provided by the Cardinals’ baseball development staff. Nootbaar tapped the notebook on his lap and said he’ll “be in the hotel room taking notes.” From the dugout, he watches the pitcher as if he’s on the on-deck circle, and in the cage he’s hitting often against the curveball and high-velocity machine.

During batting practice, Sosa goes around the horn to get groundballs at third base, shortstop, and second. He was set to start at second base on Wednesday before the game was rained out.

“I keep the same routine,” Sosa said.

When his innings went from building up to being the fifth starter to not appearing at all in the team’s first week, VerHagen kept sharp by throwing lightly off the mound, but not complete bullpens. He hasn’t had a feel for his slider so far this season but had success Thursday subbing in a changeup. VerHagen struck out three batters and allowed one run on one hit in relief of Adam Wainwright. An uncertain schedule is a change for VerHagen who spent the previous two seasons as a starter in Japan and was on a starter’s plan throughout spring training.

VerHagen threw 46 pitches, but he also warmed up twice so that continued to maintain his arm strength should he be needed for longer relief.

“It is kind of a tough balance,” the right-hander said. “I’ve been in a routine throughout spring and then kind of thrown out off that a little bit in the last week. I’ve just been throwing pretty regularly off the mound, just light, to stay sharp — but fresh as well. I felt pretty good. I was pounding strikes. Eat up a couple of innings, save the bullpen a little bit.”

Celebrating Robinson, expanding ‘access’

The Cardinals’ players and coaches, along with players and coaches throughout the majors, wore No. 42 in Dodger blue on Friday for celebration of the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut that integrated the National League. Marmol called the annual tribute and reflection on Robinson’s legacy “crazy important” because it reinforces the need for Major League Baseball to continue to improve and expand the access minorities have to leadership positions.

“It’s one thing to promote diversity, and it’s another to equip minorities with the tools necessary to navigate the industry and have success in the industry,” said Marmol, whose family has roots in the Dominican Republic and is the first person of color to manage the Cardinals in more than 50 years. “The better job we do creating access early on, I think that’s what equips people with the tools to navigate relationships and understand what it takes to get there and stay there. I’m thankful for the access I had to really good people who understood it was going to be tougher for minorities — and here are the necessary tools.”

Flaherty’s rehab

With pitching coach Mike Maddux within reach of his shadow, Jack Flaherty continued the early steps of his throwing program Friday by playing catch at around 120 feet. Flaherty missed all of spring training due to irritation in his shoulder joint. The right-hander will continue to extend the length of his throws in the coming days before advancing toward light throws off the mound and then into a spring training-like schedule of bullpens and live BPs to start building into a rehab assignment.

Flaherty is traveling with the Cardinals during this road trip instead of housing his rehab work at Busch Stadium or Jupiter, Fla., because he “just wants to be around the guys.” It helps break the monotony of a rehab schedule.

“And if this is mechanical,” Flaherty said of the work he will do to see if his mechanics drifted to put strain on his shoulder and create inflammation. “Then you’re with the right guys to work on it.”

Alex Reyes, who missed all of spring training with frayed labrum, started playing catch within the past week. He too will join the Cardinals and travel with the team later so that he can be around the trainers and coaches.

“Our thought is that these guys (should) stay with us as long as possible,” Marmol said. “I want them around as much as possible.”

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