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Notebook: Cardinals accelerate Alec Burleson's arrival, set to give prospect a swing

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St. Louis Cardinals start day 4 of team workouts in Jupiter

Cardinals outfielder Alec Burleson waits during batting practice on the fourth day of team workouts on Thursday, March 17, 2022, at the Cardinals/ spring training facility in Jupiter, Fla. 

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses Albert Pujols’ chase of 696 homers, while recalling this day in 1998, when Mark McGwire hit his record-tying 61st home run. Also, a happy birthday shoutout to Jason Isringhausen. And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

One of the Cardinals’ breakout prospects who hit his way into their plans for the coming season will be presented a run of starts to see if maybe that future is more immediate.

Alec Burleson, riding a .331 average at Class AAA Memphis, arrived at Busch Stadium shortly before game time Wednesday and is expected to make his first major-league start Thursday. With a stretch of games against right-handed opponents, the Cardinals see a chance to measure the left-handed-hitting rookie against big leaguers and determine whether he has a place on a postseason roster.

“My hope is to see him quite a bit in the lineup over the next couple of weeks, and there’s opportunity to get him in there in different spots,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “We’re built to be OK and get him in. ... (He’s) just a hitter, man, a pure hitter.”

A spot on the active roster opened for Burleson after switch-hitter Dylan Carlson underwent exams Wednesday morning on his sore left thumb.

Carlson’s hand has been bothering him for a month, Marmol said, and may have contributed to the young outfielder’s struggles at the plate. Intensified soreness led to an MRI taken Wednesday that revealed a sprain. Carlson has been prescribed at least four days without swinging and will miss at least 10 days on the injured list. In his absence, Tyler O’Neill is positioned at center field — and Burleson will get looks at designated hitter or the corner spots.

The Cardinals were hesitant to promote Burleson, the first of the 2020 draft class to reach the majors, because doing so meant using a spot on the 40-man roster that could otherwise be reserved to protect a prospect from this winter’s Rule 5 draft. The Cardinals answered how they’ll handle that by designating outfielder Conner Capel for assignment and advancing Burleson ahead of him on the depth chart.

Burleson, 23, has a .372 on-base percentage, a .532 slugging, and a .905 OPS to go with 20 homers, 25 doubles and 87 RBIs in 109 games for the Triple-A Redbirds. He’s been one of the most consistent and productive hitters in the system and the International League.

The Cardinals selected Burleson 70th overall in 2020 with the compensation pick they got after cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna signed elsewhere. At East Carolina, Burleson was both a pitcher and position player, and the Cardinals wondered how he would advance if asked to focus on only hitting. He zoomed through three levels in his first full pro season, hitting more homers (22) in 119 pro games than he had in his 130-game college career (21).

“Makes contact, he’s a tough at-bat, he uses the whole field, he hits the ball hard,” Marmol listed. “He’s ‘hitterish.’ It’s not an all-or-nothing at-bat. He’s going to put a professional at-bat together, so you can easily picture — we’ve got guys who get on base. (He) fits well with what we’re doing. We want to see what this kid can do at this level. Get him up here before September’s over. Makes sense to see what we have.”

Turning heaven into ‘Hellz’

Plunging self-proclaimed “Baseball Heaven” into the red of “Hellz” began with a nickname.

Back in 2019, Cardinals right-hander Ryan Helsley borrowed the name pitching coach Mike Maddux gave him and placed it on the back of his Players’ Weekend jersey: “HELLZ BELLZ.” That’s when Helsley recalls walking out from the bullpen for the first time and hearing the opening bongs of AC/DC’s classic “Hells Bells.” That song is now the backbeat for an entrance event the Cardinals scoreboard crew debuted Tuesday night at Busch Stadium.

When Helsley enters the game, Busch is dropped into darkness. AC/DC’s bell tolls herald his arrival. Every screen — from ribbon boards to scoreboards — is turned the red of an electric stove’s burner. And as the guitars begin, the closer’s name appears on the big scoreboard with digital flames licking at it.

Despite a sudden halt to the music, the premiere earned a thumbs up.

“I think it got the fans fired up,” Helsley said after securing his 14th save. “It was fun to be a part of that for the first time. ... See how it goes.”

The manager, who has advocated for an entry event, approved.

Entrance music has been utilized by closers for decades. Cardinals right-hander Giovanny Gallegos has a walk-in song similar to a batter’s walk-up song. Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera famously entered Yankee Stadium to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” “Hells Bells” was the signature save song for Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman with both San Diego and Milwaukee. The light show and stagecraft of such entrances is not common at Busch, but other ballparks have been given a jolt this season, especially in Queens.

Mets closer Edwin Diaz enters to the flourish of trumpets from the song “Narco,” featuring Timmy Trumpet. Mascots and fans join for a raucous announcement of the closer. Earlier this season, Timmy Trumpet performed his part live as Diaz entered from the bullpen.

Hudson on the clock

Part of Dakota Hudson’s return to Class AAA Memphis to remain sharp for his Sept. 17 start with the Cardinals is the right-hander’s first exposure to the pitch clock. Expected to be introduced to the majors next season, the pitch clock imposes a 14-second limit between pitches with no one on base. (Eighteen seconds with runners on.) If the pitcher isn’t ready to deliver, the batter gets a ball. If the hitter isn’t ready, the ump calls for a strike.

Hudson, who spent most of this season trying to maintain or hasten his time between pitches, did not have any violations Tuesday night in his first start. He set a peppy pace for 8 2/3 scoreless innings.

“I think it will help,” Marmol said. “The less time you have in between (pitches), the easier I think it is for someone like Dak to repeat. And I think the pitch clock is going to help him.”

Matz, etc.

Steven Matz (knee) will continue his strides toward a possible return as a reliever on Friday at a minor-league affiliate. The Cardinals are discussing whether the lefty’s goal will be around 45 pitches and as many as three innings Friday and then quick relief appearances next week, or if they have him simulate relief outings. Matz walked three and struck out three in 1 1/3 innings for Class AA Springfield, flashing velocity and ease of movement. “Which is a good side,” he said. “Didn’t lose too much ground in those six weeks.” … Removed this past week from the Cardinals’ 40-man roster, right-handed reliever Junior Fernandez did not last long on waivers. Teams with the worst record have first dibs, and Fernandez was claimed by last-place Pittsburgh, which optioned him to Class AAA. He joins former Cardinal Johan Oviedo on the Bucs’ pitching staff. The Cardinals have nine games remaining with the Pirates. … Ten players from the Cardinals’ 2022 draft class will be on Low-A Palm Beach’s roster for playoffs, per the club.

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