St. Louis Cardinals

Socolovich up for Cooney; Cardinals not certain who will start Tuesday

Miguel Socolovich was added to the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen mix Friday as the club optioned left-hander Tim Cooney to Class AAA Memphis.

Socolovich, whose contract was purchased from Memphis, offered long-relief protection after Cooney struggled Thursday in his major-league debut, which led to Carlos Villanueva throwing 3 2/3 innings in relief.

“They haven’t told me anything,” Socolovich said of his role. “I just got called up, so we’ll see when the game starts. It’s every player’s dream (to be here). I was in the big leagues three years ago. It’s special every time you get called up to the big leagues.”

Socolovich, 28, previously pitched for the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs, both in 2012. The Venezuelan right-hander had been unscored upon in seven games and 12 2/3 innings at Memphis. He signed with the Cardinals as a free agent in November.

“Whatever the skipper (Mike Matheny) wants, I’m ready,” Socolovich said, adding that being with the Cardinals in spring training was beneficial. “It’s nice to know all these guys. I feel comfortable with all these people.”

Socolovich throws a plus changeup, a fastball and a slider.

“Dirty changeup,” Villanueva said of Socolovich. “He throws a little like me, but better.”

Matheny said Socolovich “did a nice job” in the spring.

“We put him in closing out some games for us. We wanted to test him in some higher-leverage spots,” he said. “He’s had some experience. We knew he had a very good changeup, and he was able to make some pitches with his off-speed and throw it in just about any count and every count. He showed a good fastball, too. He could be effective against lefties and righties.”

A spot for Socolovich on the 40-man roster was cleared when outfielder Tommy Pham was moved to the 60-day disabled list. Pham suffered a left-quad injury early in spring training and has been unable to recover.

Starter for Tuesday

Villanueva could be the leading candidate to start Tuesday night against the Chicago Cubs. Matheny said he will wait until the end of the weekend to make that determination.

If Villanueva is not needed in relief Saturday or Sunday, he likely would be the favorite. Villanueva, 31, has made 76 big-league starts.

“There’s a lot of different scenarios, but I haven’t heard,” Villanueva said of the possibility of getting the ball against the Cubs, his former team. “Maybe you guys will tell me.”

Another option remains Tyler Lyons, who threw eight shutout innings Tuesday for Memphis in a 3-0 triumph over Round Rock. He walked one and struck out six.

Matheny said Cooney needs to get back on track at Memphis. Philadelphia whacked him around in the game Thursday, touching him for three runs on seven hits in 2 1/3 innings. Despite the poor outing, the Cardinals rallied for a 9-3 victory.

“He needs to work,” Matheny said of Cooney. “It’s about fastball command and controlling counts. He was behind a lot (Thursday). That wasn’t news to him; he knew that.

“We reinforced to him that we believe in his stuff. He’s been successful for a reason. Just continue to work and hopefully that success will translate here if he gets another opportunity.”

Spirited rivalry

The Cardinals squared off against Pittsburgh on Friday for the first of 19 games. It’s a rivalry that has gained steam since the Pirates began enjoying success again in 2013.

“They’re the same team we saw last year,” Matheny said. “They’ve got a lot of talent, an exciting team. We’ve had a lot of close games them, so I don’t see that changing.”

One noticeable absence from the Pirates is catcher Russell Martin, who signed a huge free-agent contract in the offseason with the Toronto Blue Jays. He has been replaced by Francisco Cervelli.

“We don’t know exactly what kind of season Cervelli is going to put together,” Matheny said. “But obviously, Russell Martin was a big part of that club. The big pieces of their bullpen are still there, and they’ve still got strong starting pitching. Not a lot of change.”

April over and out

Matheny was pleased with the Cardinals’ 15-6 performance in April. It was their best opening month to a season since 2005 when they also were 15-6.

“I thought we saw some good things from every component,” he said. “Overall, I think we saw some things that were positive. It’s something to build on, for sure.”

St. Louis’ pitching, of course, has been excellent, logging a National League-low 2.43 ERA. Pittsburgh began Friday ranked second in ERA at 2.95.

Contact reporter David Wilhelm at dwilhelm@bnd.com or 618-239-2665. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMWilhelm.

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