JUPITER, Fla. — There is one reason that merits reckoning as to why the Cardinals haven’t lost as the home team in nine exhibition games this spring. Six have been wins and three have been ties, including a three-run rally in the ninth inning that created a 5-5 deadlock with Washington Tuesday and one answer is that the Cardinals’ bench corps often has been better than the opposition’s.
The reserves are the ones on the field at the end of games while the regulars are showering or even driving home and a group of them, all fighting for roster spots, contributed in various fashions Tuesday.
With the Cardinals trailing 5-2 in the ninth, outfielder Justin Williams, who seems certain to make the club, doubled with one out, a hit that was tracked at 108.3 exit velocity. With two outs, another reserve outfielder, Austin Dean, cracked a two-run pinch homer.
Then came walks coaxed by reserve infielders Max Moroff and John Nogowski, a first baseman who took a turn in the outfield for three innings. Yet another reserve infielder, Jose Rondon, plopped a single in front of the left fielder and the game would end in the Cardinals’ fifth draw of the spring. They are 7-7-5 with five games remaining.
This kind of performance isn’t making it any easier on manager Mike Shildt, who nonetheless enjoys the moments.
“It was a good day for the guys off the bench,” said Shildt. “I appreciate the fight. That’s the way we like to play.
“It’s the culture we have here. Guys have bought into what that culture looks like and they’re letting their talent go hand in hand with the desire to compete.
“Some tough decisions will be made.”
Shildt said having these players available to do what they did in the ninth was not by accident. “We have an idea going into games who we want to see do what,” he said.
“For example, did we want to get Dean an at-bat off the bench today? And he took advantage of it. We tried to line them up where we felt like we wanted to hit them, based on what we kind of knew was coming out of their bullpen.
“It worked out. Doesn’t always but we had a plan and, more importantly the guys were able to do their part.”
It was going to be a good day anyway for Williams, who either has learned, or will learn soon, that he is out of options and can’t be sent back to the minors without passing through waivers. Such players have a better chance to stick on opening-day rosters because their organizations don’t want to lose them.
Players in Williams’ situation began learning Monday according to multiple sources that an arbiter had ruled in their favor on a grievance that had been filed — that their three option years had been exhausted. An official announcement of the ruling is expected this week.
The question teams wanted answered was whether last year’s shortened season qualified as a complete pro season, which is defined as at least 90 days. Players who spent the entirety of the year in the majors received service equivalent to a full season. Minor leaguers, however, did not have the same clarity on the actual length of the season and whether it was prorated to count as a full pro season. If it did not qualify, Williams would have a fourth option and the Cardinals could use that this year to send him to the minors.
Wainwright and Lester
The first four innings Tuesday — Adam Wainwright would go two innings longer — were an old-school matchup of longtime rivals Wainwright and Jon Lester, whom Wainwright mostly had opposed with the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox. Radar guns weren’t necessary as Lester didn’t touch 90 and Wainwright occasionally oozed over 90 but it was about location, location, location. And changing speeds. And getting ahead in counts.
Lester blanked the Cardinals for three innings before giving up a run in the fourth. The Nationals mustered just two hits and one run, Kyle Schwarber’s home run, off Wainwright, who threw 76 pitches in six innings.
Shildt could appreciate old-school pitching.
“It plays,” said Shildt. “Guys that have secondary pitches they can throw for strikes. Guys that command the baseball and put it where they want, how they’re setting guys up. It just plays. Always has and always will.
“It was fun to see two guys that know what they were doing.”
Wainwright, 39, said the 37-year-old Lester long had been one of his favorites. “That was fun,” Wainwright said. “I’ve faced Jonny a bunch of times in my career. You know, early in my career, I would have told you he was my No. 1 nemesis. He beat me twice in the (2013) World Series. We matched up a bunch of times in Chicago.
“Being a couple of the older guys out there, I always found myself rooting for him (when the Cardinals weren’t involved in the game). I always root for the older guys who are out there competing at a high level.”
Third baseman Nolan Arenado, playing more of a shortstop position in a shifted defense, made a sprawling stop on lefthanded-hitting Alex Avila and threw him out.
• Carlos Martinez will pitch on normal rest and face the New York Mets for the fourth consecutive time on Wednesday. This appears to match up Martinez with Jack Flaherty and Wainwright as the three pitchers for the Cincinnati series April 1-4.
• Nogowski didn’t have any chances in the outfield but Shildt wants to see as much as possible of the player leading the team in spring training runs batted in at 10. “He’s more than earned the look. We’ve been giving him some (outfield) work on the back fields. We didn’t want to just thrust him into it,” said Shildt. “This offseason, he reminded me he could play the outfield. He said he was ‘Andrew Jones-esque,’ which I thought was great.”
Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
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