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Notebook: Steven Matz's return as reliever intrigues Cardinals as right fit for late-game lefty

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Cardinals take on Royals in re-scheduled game

Cardinals starting pitcher Steven Matz follows through during the fifth inning of a game against the Royals at Busch Stadium on Monday, May 2, 2022. 

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses the Cardinals’ legendary duo of Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright on the day of their record-breaking 325th start together. And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

With the last long road trip of the season about to begin, complete with stops in three cities against potential playoff opponents, the Cardinals will have an opportunity to test drive what their late-inning, left-handed relief will look like for the postseason.

They’ll soon see how a starter can help them finish.

Steven Matz, the Cardinals’ free agent addition for the rotation this past winter, will make a rehab appearance Thursday for Class AAA Memphis, and if he recovers well from that inning in relief, his next pitch could be in the majors. With series at San Diego, at Dodger Stadium and in Milwaukee on the horizon, the Cardinals can get immediate feedback on how the left-handed starter handles relief assignments against strong left-handed hitters.

“We’ll see what Matz is capable of doing,” manager Oliver Marmol said.

The Cardinals currently have JoJo Romero in their high-leverage spot, with rookie Zack Thompson and Packy Naughton also in the big-league bullpen. Genesis Cabrera, who spent the first half of the season as part of the Cardinals’ late-inning trio, continues to work his way back from the Triple-A bullpen. Marmol spoke with Cabrera on Tuesday morning to discuss the lefty’s way to return to the majors and “what it looks like to get back to what makes him good.” Cabrera’s velocity has returned to the expected level, up from around 94 mph to the familiar 97 mph, and that’s improved the effectiveness of his other pitches. He may have been dialing back on his pitches to increase his command at the cost of effectiveness.

Cabrera has two and a half weeks to make his case to be an October option while Romero has the job, Naughton and Thompson have the opportunity, and Matz has the Cardinals intrigued.

Out since July 23 due to a knee injury and limited to just one start since May 22, Matz has been steady during his rehab appearances. The veteran pitched a scoreless inning in relief for the Triple-A Redbirds on Tuesday. He got three ground outs. The metrics beyond the box score show Matz has been able to maintain his usual velocity and breaking ball shapes, even though he did not get many swings and misses in his most recent outing.

Those are what the Cardinals want to see in that role.

“As a starter the only lefties who are left in the lineup if he’s the starting pitcher are really the good ones,” Marmol said of Matz. “So those are the ones he’s facing. If his strikeout rate is 29% and anybody who (subpar) is not hitting if they’re left-handed ... for the most part. He’s already facing the better lefties that the managers are keeping in the lineup against him.”

In the majors this season, Matz struck out nearly a third of the left-handed batters he faced (13 for 41), and he’s struck out a slightly lower rate of right-handed hitters (26.2%). In limited appearances in the majors, Romero has struck out five of the eight left-handed batters he’s faced. He has been less successful avoiding right-handed bats but maintains a steady ground-ball rate. What has Marmol’s interest is how either could when assigned to pitch against a left-handed batter like a Christian Yelich or Cody Bellinger and then right-handed batter followed by a likely right-handed pinch-hitter.

Matz has the most experience in such spots as a starter, and his pre-injury performance suggests he’ll be the one to avoid a ball in play.

“That’s what we’re hoping to find out,” Marmol said.

What the BABIP?

During his televised postgame news conference, Marmol casually dropped the acronym “BABIP” when detailing the Cardinals’ recent rash of hits allowed by opponents. In the Cardinals’ 8-4 loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday the Cardinals allowed 11 hits, the fifth time in six games they allowed at least 10. In the previous home series against last-place Washington, the Cardinals allowed 51 hits in four games.

They were bothered by BABIP.

That is, their batting average on balls in play (or BABIP) was an outlier, indicating that flares and seeing-eye singles were accumulated beyond the expected rate. That is something that the Cardinals invite as a team with ground-ball tendencies and low strikeout rates from pitchers. They can compensate with “our ballpark and our defense,” Marmol said. BABIP usually normalizes around .300 or slightly less, but some teams are able to suppress by taking the BIP (balls in play) out of BABIP. Three teams with the lowest BABIP in the majors are all first-place teams with three of the best records: Dodgers (.255), Astros (.266), and Yankees (.268).

This season, the Cardinals have a BABIP of .287, which ranks right around average. But in the previous two weeks, that has climbed closer to .370.

“The amount of balls in play against us that are finding grass, yeah, it’s not sustainable,” Marmol said. “We’re still middle of the pack. Balls are falling in play for hits at an unsustainable rate.”

Extra bases

As part of Wednesday’s record-setting festivities, the Cardinals had video tributes from former teammates like Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter and Chris Carpenter as Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright started together for the 325th time to set the MLB mark. ... Molina’s RBI in the second inning was the 1,018th of his career, moving him into a tie for 12th all-time among catchers with Brian McCann. .. For Class AAA Memphis, rookie Juan Yepez was three-for-eight in the first two games of a series against the Iowa Cubs, and in September he’s batting .261 with a .370 slugging percentage in September. The Cardinals see him as the next call for a promotion should at-bats become available from the right side. ... Class AAA starter Tommy Parsons improved to 11-3 this season with a win Tuesday night. ... Triple-A Memphis trainer Dan Martin was named the International League’s trainer of the year in a vote of his peers. Martin has been with the Cardinals’ organization and minor-league affiliates since 2012.

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and their team’s chances of nabbing the No. 2 spot in the National League playoffs. Plus, a happy birthday shoutout to Harry Windsor. And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

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