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BenFred: Touch in hand, Matz ready to show Cardinals (and their fans) he can go the distance

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St. Louis Cardinals beat the Houston Astros 4-2 in first game of spring training in Jupiter

St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux talks with Cardinals Steven Matz (32) in the bullpen before the start of the Cardinals first game of spring training against the Houston Astros on Friday, March 18, 2022, at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER, Fla. — One day after Steven Matz’s TV debut as a Cardinals starter sent some folks back in St. Louis scrambling to smash panic buttons and sound any and all alarms, the newest member of the rotation could be found all alone, going through his pitching delivery on one of the practice pitching mounds tucked just behind the Cardinals clubhouse out back of Roger Dean Stadium.

Matz wasn’t waiting on a catcher to show up for a throwing session. He wasn’t firing fastballs into the backstop. He just kept slowly winding up as if he was going to pitch, only to pause right before he would normally release the ball.

“That’s something I like to do throughout the year, especially a lot in the spring,” Matz shared Tuesday, while luggage was being loaded into the moving trucks as the Cardinals prepared to head home to St. Louis.

What was Matz doing back there that day anyway?

“For me, I’m a big feel pitcher,” he explained. “I’m not just able to hear something, and then do it. I’ve got to feel it. That was the big thing. Feeling my delivery. Feeling comfortable with getting my foot down, and where my hands were.”

The visualization method seemed to have worked, and Cardinals fans should now be feeling better about Matz, even if it means squinting past his Grapefruit League ERA of 5.23. The numbers that really matter for Matz start counting Sunday, when the 6-foot-2 southpaw makes his first Cardinals start in the season-opening series against the Pirates. If one bad Grapefruit League outing helped the new recipient of a four-year deal get right, that’s a pretty good deal.

After Matz surrendered six runs on seven hits in 1.2 eyebrow-raising innings in an exhibition loss to the Marlins on March 26, he returned to Grapefruit League action Tuesday against those same Marlins, and handcuffed a lineup loaded with Miami regulars.

Matz limited the Marlins to two hits and no runs in 6.2 innings. Throwing to catcher Yadier Molina for the first time in his career, Matz walked one and struck out five. He needed only 74 pitches, 51 of which were strikes. Of the 22 batters Matz faced, 12 either struck out or grounded out. His lone walk was erased by a double play he started by fielding a grounder from the mound.

“That was awesome,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “Super-efficient. He had good life to his fastball. Good changeup. Got some swings and misses with that.”

Combine Tuesday’s results with the back-field start Matz made against Class AAA hitters last Thursday, and he followed up that scary start against the Marlins with two starts that totaled 12.2 innings and produced the following numbers: four hits, no runs, three walks and 12 strikeouts.

Throw in his two scoreless Grapefruit League innings against the Nationals at the very start of camp (two hits, no runs, two strikeouts) and Matz’s three good outings were as impressive as that March 26 one, which was warped by some batted-ball luck but also influenced by Matz leaving too many pitches up in the zone.

“I’m feeling my delivery now,” Matz said about the difference. “I’m not overthrowing my pitches.”

Marmol has said multiple times this spring that part of the manager’s process for evaluating players is seeing what they do after adversity strikes. Matz, 30, is a seven-season veteran who spent six of those seasons pitching in high-pressure New York City. He didn’t flinch because of a spring spinout. He dug in and got to work to figure out what wasn’t working.

“He’s a really good fit for the type of culture we have here,” Marmol said. “He goes about it right. He’s almost the type of guy that, if anything, you have to tone down at some point.”

Most Cardinals perceived Matz as a wiry, lanky lefty as they watched him from afar. They have since realized he has bulked up more than they realized. It’s not because he wanted to hold his own against left fielder Tyler O’Neill in the team photo. It’s something he has prioritized at this point in his career because he is determined to prove he can stay healthy, work deeper into games and reach the 200-inning mark he’s been chasing. He’s pitched 150-plus innings in each of the last three full seasons, but he’s never made it past 160.1 with the Mets in 2019.

Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas and Matz serving as pillars for the Cardinals could be this season’s biggest make-or-break factor, especially early in the season as Jack Flaherty plays catch-up from a shoulder setback while the team flirts with the notion of a nontraditional, reliever-driven approach to the vacant fifth-starter spot. Pointing to the proof found in Tuesday’s box score, Matz says he’s ready to go deep into games from game one.

This club needs it. The front office, too, after making Matz the marquee pitching edition of the offseason and holding tight after Flaherty went down.

After Wainwright’s 22 in 2021, the field of pitchers that will make up the Cardinals rotation, due to everything from injuries, to one pitcher participating in a league overseas, includes an assortment of arms that combined to produce a grand total of 10 MLB quality starts — six innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs allowed — during the 2021 season. Nine of those quality starts belonged to Matz during his 29-start, 150.2-inning season (3.82 ERA) with the Blue Jays. Matz said multiple times during this camp that the kind of season he had in 2021 is not his goal. He came here on a mission to prove he can lift an even heavier load.

Making good on that pledge is impossible during spring training, but Matz did depart Florida having proven he can accomplish something he puts his mind to.

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