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Rookie reliever Pallante speeds to final spot on Cardinals roster; now competition really begins to stick around

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St. Louis Cardinals start day 2 team workouts in Jupiter

Cardinals non-roster pitcher Andre Pallante throws batting practice on the second day of team workouts on Tuesday, March 15, 2022, at the Cardinals spring training facility in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. — With two days remaining in camp and his name still on the Cardinals’ roster, right-hander Andre Pallante gave his father out in Orange County, Calif., a warning that a decision on who made the team had to be made soon.

When the son called at 4 a.m. Monday (West Coast time) with news, he was not surprised to find his father, Neil, awake.

“I don’t think he slept at all,” Andre said.

And yet he had a dream.

By telling Neil Pallante’s hard-throwing son that he would start the season in the big-league bullpen, the Cardinals finished their 28-man opening-day roster. Andre Pallante edged lefty Connor Thomas and fellow right-hander Jake Walsh — all rookies — for the 15th and final spot on the Cardinals’ pitching staff. Pallante, 23, was the last of the players told he’ll be flying to St. Louis on Tuesday afternoon in time for dinner.

Manager Oliver Marmol, who said the decision was made after internal debate Sunday night, wanted to strike a competitive theme for camp and the derby for the final spot on the pitching staff offered an example, each prospect making his claim.

The competition to earn a spot is over. The competition to keep it is just beginning.

“No doubt. It will be as real as ever,” Marmol said. “You’ve got to cut two pitchers come May, and we’ll keep our best guys. So it’s a competition to get there. This whole sport, that’s what it is. If you’re good, you stay, and if you’re not, you go. Those guys need to prove they’re going to help us win a championship. If they are, they stay. We’ll make the decision when we need to.”

The Cardinals will open the regular season Thursday at Busch Stadium with four designated starters and no fifth starter named.

Marmol said midway through camp that he wanted to leave Jupiter with a designated No. 5 starter. Not happening, he conceded Monday. That discussion will “trickle into the season,” he said.

Newcomer Drew VerHagen and returning reliever Jake Woodford auditioned for the first spot in the rotation left open by Jack Flaherty’s shoulder injury, which officially put him on the 10-day injured list Monday. VerHagen had the edge and Woodford had the performance, but the Cardinals are considering a creative alternative. Jordan Hicks, the team’s closer in 2019, could be used as an opener for the fifth game of the season.

The Cardinals might not name a fifth starter until next weekend, depending on whether Hicks, Woodford, or VerHagen is needed in the four-game series against Pittsburgh.

The roster is set. Roles are not.

It’s the first tangible example of how Marmol and pitching coach Mike Maddux plan to utilize some pitchers outside of the traditional silos. They’re prioritizing matchups, not rigid roles, and the selection of Pallante reflects the theory that guides decisions in spring. Come Thursday, the application must yield results.

With a background at starter, Pallante can offer multiple innings in relief, and his upside and style of pitches frees Hicks to appear at the beginning of games because Pallante, Ryan Helsley, Nick Wittgren, and Kodi Whitley are there for the end of games, holding or closing leads along with Giovanny Gallegos.

Pallante sports a fastball with movement that can reach 98 mph or swifter. He’s been consistently above 96 mph as a reliever, and he has a fastball that behaves like a wasp — cutting, sinking, darting, but stinging in the strike zone.

With its movement, Pallante has a high groundball rate, and during Grapefruit League games he allowed one hit in 3 2/3 innings. He struck out five of 12 batters faced.

“That will do it,” Marmol said. “That right there will do it. When you’re striking out a third of the people who step in the box, you open up some eyes. He went about it right. It was a legit competition all the way through. Do I think we’ll see those other guys are some point in time this year? Absolutely.”

Walsh, a power reliever, was optioned to the Class AAA Memphis roster, and Thomas was reassigned there. Both could be back based on their success, or the Cardinals’ need.

On May 1, teams must shrink their roster to 26, and they are permitted only 13 pitchers, by rule. There’s a certainty of cuts coming, and the only certain way to hold a job in the big-league bullpen for a young pitcher is to perform in it.

As part of the Cardinals’ pitching plan, they see elasticity in their pitching staff because it could change from series to series based on the opponent. The Cardinals will open the season with two lefties in the bullpen — Genesis Cabrera and T. J. McFarland — but if they head into a series against an opponent susceptible lefties, the Cardinals will churn the bullpen to give it a different look.

“We’ve seen it against us, at times,” Marmol said. “Having the depth to be able to do it — I like that flexibility. Whether we do it early on or not, yeah, that’s an option.”

Pallante’s success against left-handed batters and the way his fastball plays on both sides of the plate for grounders helped the Cardinals make the decision to add him to the roster. A corresponding move to free up a spot on the 40-man roster will be made Thursday.

A test came Sunday. During a simulated game on Field 1 at the Roger Dean Stadium complex, Pallante faced teammates, including three left-handed batters. That was by design as the Cardinals made their final call on the roster.

The Cardinals’ fourth-round pick in the 2019 draft, Pallante hit 98 mph as a freshman reliever for UC-Irvine. His fastball sat at lower register when he started in college. Last season, while making 21 starts for Class AA Springfield, he was able to hold his velocity deeper into games while not losing the efficient created by the movement on his pitch. He had a 3.82 ERA in 94 1/3 innings for the S-Cards, and he threw five innings in a brief, two-game turn with Class AAA Memphis. His rise accelerated in the Arizona Fall League. In that hitter-happy environment, Pallante dazzled.

“Lighting up radar guns,” teammate Lars Nootbaar said.

Pallante struck out 22 batters in 21 innings and allowed on 17 hits on his way to a 1.29 ERA. He said he was able to carry that feel, that command of his fastball and snappy breaking ball from fall into spring.

Now he gets to see whether it keeps him up during summer.

“It’s exciting. It’s exciting to see guys who I have watched on TV, now I’m watching them in the box when I’m getting ready (to pitch),” Pallante said. “As a pitcher you have to have that confidence that you can trust your stuff in the zone. It’s just every time I go out there I feel like I’m building more confidence.”

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