Cardinals hosted by Astros in fourth spring training game

St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Alex Reyes (29) unwinds during the third inning of a preseason Major League Baseball game at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday, March 4, 2021. This first road game of the season for the Cardinals. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

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WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?

Other than the days Jack Flaherty and Adam Wainwright start, Cardinals starting pitchers may be lifted after five innings if the club’s relief corps is as solid as it looks.

The last four innings of any game could feature the likes of Jordan Hicks, Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley and Genesis Cabrera, all capable of throwing in the mid-to-high 90s. Then there are veteran lefthanders Andrew Miller and Tyler Webb, who don’t have any trouble pitching to three — or even more — batters if they have to.

When the rotation solidifies, veteran swingman John Gant and perhaps Daniel Ponce de Leon will be back in the bullpen to add depth.

Cardinals Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog, who knows a little something about managing bullpens, says, “With Gallegos and Reyes and Hicks and Helsley and those lefthanders in the bullpen, I don’t think Mike Shildt will let any (starter) go longer than six innings. They’ve got about 16 or 17 guys that could pitch in the big leagues right now.

“They’re going to have a lights-out bullpen,” Herzog said.

Hicks was brought along carefully in the spring, not having pitched since June 2019 when he suffered an injury to his right elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery. Hicks, who has Type 1 diabetes, chose not to play last season but he was lighting up the guns at 100 to 102 mph early this spring in pain-free outings.

Hicks won’t be installed immediately as the closer and maybe no one else will either, although Reyes finished the Cardinals’ one playoff win last year and was pitching some ninth innings this spring.

Gallegos could close and has done so but has seemed to do his best work as a setup man, which he was in 2019 when he allowed just just 44 hits and 16 walks in 74 innings while striking out 93 and holding opponents to a .170 batting average.

WHAT IS THE LIKELY REALITY?

With some rotation uncertainty and unproven parts of their offense, the Cardinals may have to try to play to their strengths — defense and bullpen. In this age, the bullpens have taken on more importance — and innings — and the Cardinals, long known for having the Clydesdales parade around the park on opening day, have the horsepower and firepower to play this kind of game.

Righthander Kodi Whitley, who also has a searing fastball, might make the club, too. If not, he will close at Memphis.

If Hicks returns full bore this spring or summer, he could take over as the closer, but the Cardinals don’t mind the bullpen by committee (or matchups) until then. After all, it was Herzog who coined “bullpen by committee” in the first place when his Cardinals won the 1985 National League pennant.

Under any circumstance, the Cardinals don’t have to concern themselves too much with the three-batter rule, which might be the total number of hitters they need to face to get three outs in an inning. Often all the outs would be strikeouts, too.

Rick Hummel

@cmshhummel on Twitter

rhummel@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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