The competition for the fifth spot in the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation added another layer Thursday when Jaime Garcia struck out a spring training-high seven in a 7-2 loss to the New York Mets in Grapefruit League action.
Garcia, a left-hander, and right-hander Carlos Martinez appear to be the final candidates battling for the spot. Manager Mike Matheny said earlier Thursday that Marco Gonzales, who could be the third left-hander in the bullpen, instead is probably destined for Class AAA Memphis to start. Gonzales, 23, is 3-0 with a 0.84 ERA in three starts.
“I think we always have to be real honest,” Matheny said. “A younger player always has that advantage of going back (to the minors) and pitching and staying sharp for if and when we need him. So I think that’s always going into the consideration.
“We talk about competition and the kid’s come out here and he’s been pitching very well. He’s competing just like we’ve asked. So it’s just a matter of how it fits best with our club. ... You have to be built up in order to pitch as a starter. You can’t just take them (after) a couple of months of throwing 15 pitches in one inning and then all of a sudden expect them to go 50.”
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Garcia didn’t hurt his chances of winning the fifth spot despite the loss. He allowed two runs, both earned, on five hits in four innings, with one walk and seven strikeouts. Garcia allowed a third-inning home run to Wilmer Flores on a high fastball that put the Mets ahead 2-0.
Garcia, who has a long history of injuries, is 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA in three starts. He has 12 strikeouts in his last two games and had a load of swings and misses against the Mets.
“I guess that’s always a good sign that the ball is moving,” said Garcia, who threw 72 pitches and 45 strikes. “But my priority is always to get those quick outs. I threw a lot of pitches today. Normally, most of the time, that’s not what you want to do. You want to make them hit the ball early and get quick outs. It’s a process.”
Whether it’s Martinez, 23, or Garcia, 28, who makes the club, the Cardinals won’t need a fifth starter until April 19 against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium.
Matheny assessed Garcia’s performance as being “pretty good.”
“He made some good pitches,” he said. “You saw a lot of the usual rough swings on balls that kind of disappeared. That’s something he does. It’s freakish. When he’s in a zone, the ball’s dancing (and) he can keep it on the plate. It’s crazy how that ball moves.”
Garcia, who worked in just seven games last season before he underwent thoracic outlet surgery, feels OK, but not great, physically.
“I’ve had a lot of stuff. It’s good enough,” Garcia said. “It’s hard to say I’m 100 percent and not pain-free, but it’s good enough to where I can compete and go out there and pitch.
“It’s kind of hard to get into the physical part because I haven’t pitched in a long time. But I am healthy and I’m going to compete. I’m going to go out there and pitch. All I’m thinking about is what I can control, and that’s coming in here with the best attitude possible every day and controlling my work ethic. That’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
Garcia, in the final year of his contract before club options in 2016 and 2017, said he is thankful for another opportunity and that he is having fun.
“I’m so grateful and so thankful to still have an opportunity to still wear a uniform in spring training for the St. Louis Cardinals,” he said. “I’m not going to take anything for granted every chance I have to take the mound.”
Adam Wainwright will start Saturday in his spring debut against the Atlanta Braves, followed by Martinez. John Lackey will make the three-hour bus trip to Sarasota on Sunday to face the Minnesota Twins, and Lance Lynn will work Monday against the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers.
Matheny still isn’t sure whether the Cardinals will keep two or three left-handers in their bullpen. Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist are cinches to make the team, and if Gonzales goes to Memphis to continue to start, the only other candidates from the left side are Sam Freeman and Nick Greenwood.
Freeman, who allowed two runs and a walk Thursday, contines to have command problems. Greenwood has surrendered four runs (three earned) in four innings this spring.
“So much kind of hinges on how that last starter position ends up and kind of what we feel is going to be best for our club after that,” Matheny said.
Big day for Bourjos
Peter Bourjos appeared to benefit by the off day Wednesday. The outfielder was 1-for-2 with a home run in the eighth, against Jon Velasquez, and a sacrifice bunt in the third. Bourjos also hit another ball hard when he flied out to left in the fifth.
“I’m excited by any (positive) result right now,” said Bourjos, who is 2-for-25 this spring (.080). “My swing feels good in the cage, it feels good in batting practice and it feels pretty good in the game. A lot of it has been timing and trusting it. Coming into today, I felt like I was in between my old swing and where I’m trying to go. I really want to make an effort to continue to stick with where I want to go even though the results haven’t been there.”
Bourjos remembered last year, his first with the Cardinals, when he had a successful spring but was 8-for-50 (.160) from March 31 to April 30.
“This is really the time, if you’re going to struggle, to struggle,” Bourjos said. “In April, that’s when your season starts. That’s when you want to have good at-bats and be hitting the ball hard. Last year, I had a pretty good spring training, and look what I did in April. It really didn’t matter what I did down here. Right now, I’m putting myself in a better position to have a better year.”
Bourjos’ homer was wind-aided, but a homer nonetheless.
“I think he was pretty happy,” Matheny said. “He’s doing all the right things. He’s just got to keep playing. Hopefully, things will start clicking.”
Matheny said the environment at Roger Dean Stadium on Thursday was one of the worse he ever has witnessed.
“It was awful today,” Matheny said, obviously peeved. “That was just ugly. Spring training or not. We’ve got to look better than that. It was just a dead atmosphere all the way around. I don’t know what was going on. It’s the first we’ve seen of that. I guess it’s going to be the last.
“It was everywhere. It was (even) in the stands. It was just dead. That won’t happen again. It was a slow pace. Everything was out of whack right from the very beginning.”