WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Capitalizing on a chance to mingle with the starting pitchers during Grapefruit League games, young lefty Zack Thompson came equipped with a question for each of them. And, now thanks to one piece of advice already, a journal in which to write the answers down.
He recently asked Steven Matz what he’s asked others:
What was the personal “breakthrough” two or three years into the majors?
“Knowing who you are as a pitcher, accepting who you are a pitcher, and staying true to that,” Thompson said, recalling Matz’s answer. “You don’t have to change who you are. I really took that in. The curveball is my best offering. … That’s me. That’s my pitch.”
With greater use has come greater success and thrust Thompson, the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2019, to the front of the most competitive area of the roster: the joust for lefty spots in the bullpen. Thompson’s curveball, its any-count effectiveness, and how it plays against his mid-90s mph fastball “has been key,” manager Oliver Marmol said. Just as lefty Packy Naughton’s spike in velocity on his slider, lefty Andrew Suarez’s deceptive delivery and shutout spring, and lefty Anthony Misiewicz’s strike-throwing have kept them in the competition.
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The Cardinals have eight lefties who are not big-league starters still on the big-league camp, and sorting through them — testing them — took a twist Tuesday.
In order to get four lefties against Houston’s starting lineup and script lefties against All-Stars Jose Abreu and Alex Bregman, Marmol and pitching coach Dusty Blake opened the game with four consecutive lefties. The Cardinals shifted the plan “to see the lefties against a legit lineup,” Marmol said. Thompson got the start, running in from the bullpen instead of popping out of the dugout to throw the bottom of the first at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Naughton, Suarez, and Misiewicz followed. They combined for four no-hit innings, three bopped-around walks, and Misiewicz retired all three batters he faced on fewer than seven pitches.
Right-hander Jake Woodford, working in the long relief role he’s competing to own, took over in the fifth, carried a no-hitter into the sixth, and eventually was a part of the 3-3 tie.
“It is completely unfair to say that we’re going to throw four lefties in a row against their lineup, and we’re going to judge their performance on who makes the team based on that performance,” Marmol said. “It has a hell of a lot more to do with all of the other things that go along with them knowing that’s the case today. Them respond to it a certain way, and then them responding to the one or two that it may not go their way.
“You’re judging all of it,” the manager continued. “We’re not breaking camp tomorrow. But it will be good to see however they respond to all of it.”
To open the game, Thompson rushed his delivery at times and walked the second batter. After a visit from catcher Willson Contreras to remind him to slow down, Thompson breezed through the remainder of the inning. He got the Abreu at-bat. Thompson set up the former MVP with an off-speed pitch in the strike zone and then elevated a 94-mph fastball to get Abreu swinging and finish the first inning.
After hearing Jordan Montgomery’s answer to his question, Thompson started journaling after his every outing. He said it was important that he be “brutally honest, no sugarcoat.” So he has been about landing pitches, about slipping behind in counts. Montgomery has preached routine, and in addition to the physical parts of his preparation, the review has become a mental part of that routine.
That has become part of the conviction of the curveball.
“Trust it,” Thompson said. “And spin the (crud) out of it.”
Naughton has made the same advancement with his breaking ball, turning a slider that had the same velocity as his changeup into a power pitch. Naughton has upgraded his slider from an 82-83 mph pitch to touching 89 mph on Tuesday. That separates his two off-speed pitches and plays well off his 94-mph fastball. He dropped two changeups to the first batter he faced to strike him out on three pitches.
“In spring, you want to make sure the pitches work,” Marmol said. “A slider from 88-89 from Naughton is better than 83. That plays over time.”
Suarez drew the Bregman assignment in the third inning and struck out the former MVP runner-up on five pitches to end the third inning. Suarez got him swinging over an off-speed pitch as if Bregman was chasing the fastball — and then couldn’t stop as it faded from him.
Signed as a free agent returning from Japan’s top league, Suarez has five scoreless appearances this spring. He’s struck out six in 4 1/3 innings.
“There’s some deception to him,” Marmol said. “The fastball gets on you. It’s a tick up from what he’s been in the past (in) overall velo. I do think it sneaks up on hitters.”
It could sneak up on peers, too.
With two weeks remaining before the Cardinals head to St. Louis and the opener of the regular season, the lefty contest remains open with two other challengers soon to return from the World Baseball Classic. Genesis Cabrera has yet to pitch for the Dominican Republic, limiting his action, and JoJo Romero allowed a home run in his first inning of work for Team Mexico. They’re still in the mix for what could be one or two spots from the left side in the bullpen. And the foursome from Tuesday has one or two appearances to continue leaving an impression on, as Thompson said, “who they are as a pitcher.”
At some point, Marmol is looking for lefties who start to separate themselves.
Paul DeJong sidelined by sore back
A late scratch from Tuesday’s lineup, Paul DeJong could miss a few days after an injury again interrupted what was expected to be a long stretch of starts for the former All-Star shortstop. DeJong experienced lower back stiffness shortly before the team departed Roger Dean Stadium for the exhibition game against the Astros, and he was replaced in the lineup by Masyn Winn.
DeJong previously missed a few starts at shortstop as he strengthened his arm and alleviated some soreness. With Tommy Edman overseas for the World Baseball Classic, DeJong was scripted for more playing time but has been limited to six games and 13 at-bats through the Cardinals’ first 16 exhibition games.
Prospect Freddy Pacheco claimed by Tigers
Freddy Pacheco, a power right-handed prospect the Cardinals maneuvered to protect from the Rule 5 Draft, was claimed off waivers by Detroit on Tuesday as the Cardinals sought to begin clearing at least one spot on the 40-man roster. Pacheco had not thrown this spring due to a forearm injury and elbow soreness, and the time of the move was to meet this week’s deadline for removing players with injuries from the roster. While exams of Pacheco’s elbow did not show any structural issues, the Cardinals did not expect him to be pitching until May and had already optioned him to minors.
Pacheco, 24, struck out 84 in 62 innings this past season at Class AA and Class AAA combined, and he was rated as a top-30 prospect in the Cardinals’ system.
With South Korea eliminated from the international tournament, infielder Edman was expected back in Florida by late Tuesday night and will resume workouts with the Cardinals this week. The Cardinals’ performance department has a plan to aid Edman’s transition after traveling to Korea, Tokyo, and back and limit the jetlag. … Miles Mikolas made his Team USA and WBC debut with two innings of scoreless relief in a 12-1 victory against Canada. Mikolas was used in relief because of the national team’s exhausted bullpen and rules limited consecutive appearances. Mikolas threw on what would have been his between-start bullpen day. … Dakota Hudson threw 75 pitches for 4 2/3 innings in a simulated game Tuesday on the back fields. The right-hander allowed one run on four hits with two walks and a hit batter. He also struck out seven in a lineup put together from the Cardinals’ organization.