Cardinals' Holland shows lots of progress

Cardinals' Holland shows lots of progress

It’s the situation that closers, and the managers of closers, hope for: taking the mound in the ninth inning and getting a 1-2-3 inning. A minimal amount of drama, a maximum amount of satisfaction.

That’s what the Cardinals got from Greg Holland, as their closer-to-be retired the Reds in order in the ninth inning Sunday at Busch Stadium. That it was at the end of a 9-2 game mattered only a little. In his sixth appearance with the Cardinals after being a late free agent signing, Holland retired the side without allowing a baserunner for the first time, and for only the second time didn’t walk anyone.

“That was a great step in the right direction,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.

That it was. Besides walking no one, Holland struck out one and needed just 11 pitches, his quickest outing so far, which was especially nice when it started raining strongly in the middle of the inning, sending fans scurrying for cover.

It wasn’t a save situation for Holland, but it was a progress situation, and he showed that.

“I had some outings where I couldn’t command the baseball,” he said. “Hopefully, the last couple outings, I still walked some guys, but it’s gotten better with my proximity to where I’m trying to throw the ball. I’m looking forward to the next few times out on that end being where I wanted to be.”

“We can’t go back in the archives with Greg, but it looked good,” Matheny said. “Good movement on the breaking ball, and it seems like the fastball is coming out a little better. He’s getting real close. … Bud (Norris) was really good again today, too. A couple real nice weapons there.”

Norris getting the eighth and Holland the ninth Sunday still speaks to the situation in the Cardinals’ bullpen. When Matheny got Norris up and throwing in the bullpen, the score was 3-2 and the top of the Reds’ lineup was coming up in the eighth. That loomed as the bigger threat, so even though it was the eighth, Matheny wanted Norris up next. The suspense was removed from the equation when Paul DeJong homered in the Cards’ half of the seventh to put them up 6-2.

“They stacked some lefties and we realized that was going to be a tough spot (in the eighth) before Paul did what he did, and we wanted Bud ready,” Matheny said. “At that point, we just decided to give him the ball even though it turned into a four-run lead instead of a one. That was the spot we wanted Bud in that lineup and then give Greg the ball too, regardless of where we were after that and see how it played out. He looked very sharp today.”

Allowing hits hasn’t been an issue for Holland. He’s given up just two so far this season. Walks are a different matter. He had walked eight batters in 3 1/3 innings coming into the game, or almost one for each out he had gotten. He improved that ratio Sunday.

“I’ve never been a really low walk guy,” he said. “You’re not ever trying to walk anybody, but in certain situations, with first base open and you fall behind in a count, you’re going to pitch a guy careful and you might walk him. For me, when my lower body and my upper body are on time, typically I’m going to throw the ball pretty close to where I want to and with the same kind of movement that I wanted. My timing, in general, has been a lot better over the last three outings. I’m just trying to remember what that feels like and repeat it.”

The thing for Holland, however, is that while he says he’s throwing better now, he said he has always felt good this season, even if he didn’t sign with the Cardinals until March 31 and had just two minor-league outings before pitching in the majors.

“I felt good,” he said. “I’ve felt good since I’ve gotten here. It didn’t start out as good as I wanted to, but luckily, we’re winning games. It takes a little bit of the sting out of it. We’ve been playing well as a team, and I’m looking forward to contributing to that. I’ve felt fine this entire time. Sometimes you go through stretches where you struggle and I’m not going to make me signing late be an excuse. It’s just one of those things.”

Norris’ recent performance figures to keep him in the closer role until there’s reason not to, but if Holland can pitch like this in a tight game, it makes a good situation for Matheny and the Cardinals.

“Bud knew this as soon as we signed Greg,” Matheny said. “This is going to be a real good back end of the pen no matter how we put this together. We’ve got some really good arms down here. It will be fun figuring it out. That’s how we’re going to go forward. We’re going to figure it out. Keep taking advantage of whatever inning you get and realize it’s going to be an important one.”

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Cardinals' Luke Gregerson: Grabs first hold Saturday

Cardinals' Luke Gregerson: Grabs first hold Saturday

Gregerson grabbed his first hold of the season in a win over the Reds on Saturday, allowing an earned run on one hit over two-thirds of an inning.

The right-hander quickly disposed of Tucker Barnhart and Alex Blandino to open his frame before allowing a single to Phillip Ervin. Gregerson got the hook at that point, but he was eventually charged with a run when Ervin crossed the plate on the RBI single Tyler Lyons subsequently surrendered to Jose Peraza. Despite his ERA taking a hit Saturday, Gregerson has looked encouragingly sharp over his first two appearances, throwing six of nine pitches for strikes Saturday. With Bud Norris thriving in the ninth-inning role and Greg Holland likely to see opportunities in that capacity as well, Gregerson appears destined for plenty of eighth-inning setup work as the season unfolds.

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Cardinals' Marcell Ozuna: Not in lineup Sunday

Cardinals' Marcell Ozuna: Not in lineup Sunday

Ozuna is not in the lineup Sunday against the Reds.

Ozuna, who has just one hit in his last 18 at-bats, will be given Sunday off for the second straight week. The sample size is still relatively small, but the former Marlin is off to a brutal start at the plate this season. His walk rate is down, his strikeout rate is up and he’s hitting for considerably less power than he did in previous seasons. He’ll hopefully begin heating up with the weather moving forward, but the early results are disappointing. Tyler O’Neill draws the start in left field Sunday.

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Ortiz: Focus is key to good start for Martinez this year

Ortiz: Focus is key to good start for Martinez this year

Carlos Martinez was already in the training room icing his powerful right arm when Yadier Molina stepped to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium.

Martinez had just been taken out of the decision when the Reds scored three runs to tie the score in the top of the frame, but he refused to dwell on the negative. Maintaining the mindset that has helped him remain focused this season, he didn’t waste any time sulking.

He was confident as the face of the organization strolled to the plate. “Vamos, Yadi!” he said to himself. Let’s go, Yadi. A few seconds later, he screamed with more excitement after Molina hit what proved to be the game-winning solo home run to beat the Reds 4-3.

“I couldn’t get the decision, but we won the game,” Martinez said. “That’s the most important thing.”

Martinez, who threw six scoreless innings to extend his streak to 18 scoreless innings, is feeling better than ever on the mound. He has the longest scoreless streak in the National League this season and the longest active streak in baseball.

His recent success, though, is due to more than just an impressive arsenal that features a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, cutter, slider, curveball and changeup.

“I think now is the best I’ve pitched,” he said. “I think that I’m more of a veteran. I know how to approach every situation in a game. No matter what happens in the game, I haven’t lost focus. That’s the most important thing. I think that’s what has helped me the most this season.”

Martinez, 26, feels like a different pitcher this year, and it’s not just because he added a cutter this spring after Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez recommended the addition this offseason.

“Before, perhaps if there was an error or if I gave up a two-strike hit, perhaps I dropped my head,” Martinez said. “Or if I walked somebody perhaps I’d drop my head. But now I don’t care. I just worry about working intelligently and focusing on the next batter. That’s what has helped me a lot this season.”

“All my pitches are good. The most important thing is that I’m focused. I’m maintaining my focus this year. I don’t worry about things that happen on the field early. I simply work hard and focus.”

The improved mound presence is quite evident in the results.

Martinez held the Reds to three hits, three walks and one hit batter with seven strikeouts over six scoreless innings. He exited with a 3-0 lead when he was pulled for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth as manager Mike Matheny attempted to get more runs with one man on and two outs.

Martinez had thrown 91 pitches, 56 for strikes, at that point. His pitch count was climbing as he pitched in and out of the trouble in the fifth. He gave up a leadoff single to Scooter Gennett in the sixth before second baseman Kolten Wong made a brilliant running catch to rob Adam Duvall in shallow right field to start an unconventional 4-3 double play.

Wong’s web gem was so stunning, Gennett had already turned toward third base when the catch was made.

“He’s still throwing good, outside of the play that Wong made,” Matheny said. “That’s a game-changing play. Had that fallen we would have been in a little bit of a mess there. But up until that point, you’re talking a bloop. But he’s at the end.

“He’s probably got three more hitters. We got an opportunity with a man on base that can run. Put a hitter in to try to get us a better lead. You exchange that for the three hitters he would have faced before we got to the top of the order, and we would have gone and got some help. That’s the thinking. It didn’t quite work.”

Martinez has pitched like a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate since giving up five runs (four earned) over 4 1/3 innings in a disappointing performance on opening day against the Mets.

Martinez (2-1, 1.42 ERA) has allowed only one run over his last four starts — a span of 27 1/3 innings. He credits Molina and a few teammates with the improved focus.

“My teammates tell me to try to stay focused,” he said. “They tell me not to lose focus if something bad happens on the field or if we don’t score. They tell me to just worry about trying to get outs.”

That poise was evident in the first inning. After walking Joey Votto to put two on with one out, he struck out Gennett and Duvall to escape. After hitting Jose Peraza and walking Votto to put two on with two outs in the third, he caught Gennett looking to end that threat.

After the Reds put two on with one out in the fifth, he got Peraza to hit into a force out and then induced an inning-ending fly out to center from Votto.

“His sinker was moving a lot,” Molina said. “His cutter, his new pitch, was doing the job. He deserved the win today.”

When asked if the two-time All-Star had reached greater level this season, Molina didn’t hesitate.

“Yeah, I can say that,” Molina said. “Right now we’re seeing another level. I’m happy for him and the way he’s pitching. Hopefully he stays like that the whole year.”

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Cardinals insider: It's been a long and winding road for Bud Norris

Cardinals insider: It's been a long and winding road for Bud Norris

The season that changed everything for Bud Norris ended with two scoreless innings of relief at Dodger Stadium and a car packed for the long drive north, toward the Bay Area. The previous 12 months had taken him to Baltimore and San Diego, to a speedboat bouncing across the Andaman Sea, to an elephant sanctuary in Phuket, to the neon wonderland of Macau for a welterweight bout, and, finally, exhausted, to somewhere just as exotic: the bullpen.

He had gone to the disabled list, to a specialist at Johns Hopkins, to Stanford, and to a dark corner of his apartment desperate for sleep, only to be lured out by his mom’s chicken soup.

A sudden and confusing illness ravaged his 2015 season, turned his career inside out and brought him to this spot in early October: the road home. Eager to put the year behind him, he pulled onto the interstate and had no idea what was ahead.

“It was like 2015 tore me in directions that I didn’t even know were possible,” Norris says. “I wasn’t who I wanted to be. I certainly made mistakes. I literally did not know if I was going to come back to baseball. I didn’t know what opportunity was going to be there around the corner. What I did know: I had to find happiness, I had to find health, and I had to find who I was as a person and a player.”

The Cardinals were there at the start for Norris — the team he defeated for his first major-league win — and now they’re seeing how he can finish, as their closer, pro tempore. In between is how he changed from the Bud they knew to the Bud they need.

When Norris agreed to a one-year, $3-million deal with the Cardinals on the eve of spring training, they promised him only, possibly a chance to start. He couldn’t ask for more. On Instagram, he wrote about St. Louis, “This place has always brought the best out in me as a player.” It already has, just not how he thought. With Greg Holland warming toward the role of closer, Norris has seized it with a five-out save at Wrigley Field and another save Friday. He has five so far, and the Cardinals aren’t rushing him from the role.

Three years ago, he steamrolled toward free agency and all the riches of a reliable bulldog starter. Then came a dramatic weight loss and a search for answers that his family traces back to hopscotching around Southeast Asia. He was released twice in 13 months. He started the past two seasons like this one: one-year deal, no promises. Each of those ended where this one started, in the bullpen. He thinks he has what he’s been seeking.

“The place where he is now is so far from where he had to come from,” says his mother, Suzi Norris. “It took everything. Mentally, collecting himself. Physically, that he could get healthy and prove it. Spiritually, that he had to fall back in love with the game again. He had to find that love of the game.”

“This,” Suzi concludes, “is the Bud of old.”

At 3, sitting in a booster seat in a Mexican restaurant in Lafayette, Calif., David Stefan Norris Jr. ordered a beer and ended up with a nickname. His father, grandfather, and uncle all sat on the same side of the table as he did. The waitress dutifully took their drink orders.

“A Bud,” said dad, David Sr.

“A Bud,” said grandpa.

“A Bud,” said uncle.

“A Bud,” said the toddler.

Without hesitation the waitress wrote down the four orders, the family says, and swung around to the other side to get Suzi Norris’. She suggested that maybe, just maybe her son wasn’t old enough for a Bud. An apology followed until David Sr. piped up and said it was all alright because his son was “just a Bud Man.”

“This was when the Bud Man was a thing,” Norris says now.

David Sr. announced batters at youth league games and with “Big Stick” and “White Shoes” also came “Bud Man.” Norris put it on the back of his practice jersey for football. In sixth grade, his class had David M., David R., and David N. He volunteered to go by “Bud,” and that’s how a nickname becomes a name. In 2006, as he pitched for Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Ozzie Smith’s alma mater, his mother wondered if the draft might get confusing. She was assured: “Everybody knows this Bud.”

Houston’s sixth-round pick that summer, Norris reached the majors three years later. On Aug. 2, 2009, Roy Oswalt had some lower back discomfort and the Astros’ needed a starter. The righthander named for a beverage would get his first big-league start at a ballpark named for its brewer. Against a lineup fortified by the trade for Matt Holliday days earlier, Norris took a no-hitter through five. He allowed one earned run in his first 26 innings against the Cardinals and he was dubbed “Cy Norris” on Twitter. This Bud made five starts at Busch before he lost there.

That rookie year he held the Cardinals scoreless in 13 innings. He had a 5.91 ERA against everyone else. They helped make him.

“It’s a baseball city,” Norris says. “My adrenaline gets pumping. I knew pitching in St. Louis and pitching against the Cardinals was are all opportunity to show yourself, what you’re made of.”

Traded to Baltimore in 2013, he had a career year in 2014, no Cardinals required. The righthander went 15-8 with a career-low 3.65 ERA. Only five pitchers spent the entire season in the AL East and had a lower ERA. He was about to make $8.8 million for 2015, and on the horizon was free agency, shining bright and gold.

That November, he and three friends sped toward adventure.

His career was never the same.

This was the weekend of 2015 The Preakness Stakes, so finding a hotel room was difficult, but Norris’ agent did his best when David Sr. and Suzi asked. They bolted from their home in Marin County, Calif., to Baltimore to tend to their son, who had just been placed on the disabled list with flu-like symptoms. Suzi went to work on chicken soup at Bud’s apartment. He emerged from a room, drawn by the soup’s smell. “He was the color of the wall — gray,” Suzi says. “Ashen.”

Bud had dropped 15 pounds on his way to 20 total. He had no desire to eat, little success sleeping, and was a weather system of hot and cold flashes with occasional clamminess. After seeing several specialists it was believed he had a type of virus or, his mother says, an intestinal parasite he may have caught abroad.

In two weeks, Norris and three teammates from his American Legion team gallivanted from Bangkok to Phuket. They caught a sunrise on Koh Phi Phi off the coast of Thailand and a sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. They scored seats to a Manny Pacquiao fight in Macau. “We’re burning the candle on every end,” he says. “My body was in shock, I guess. My body shut down right in the middle of a season.”

He was 1-4 with a 9.88 ERA in his first six starts for the Orioles before the DL. A diet of mom’s chicken soup and antibiotics got him back, strong enough to pitch, but even then a rehab start soured with nine runs on 12 hits in 2 2/3 innings. He didn’t start another game for Baltimore after the DL, and got his release in August. San Diego signed him.

As a Padre, he made a culturally insensitive comment to USA Today about how “if (foreign players) are going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years.” It’s a comment, Norris says this past week, that he didn’t mean and has “haunted me ever since and I wish, I wish I could take back.” He finished that year — with two scoreless innings at LA, a 6.72 ERA, a long drive and many questions.

He spent that offseason rethinking everything from his sleep habits to his nutrition. To avoid acid reflux, he cut foods like onions and tomatoes from his diet. He altered his workouts. He did not experience the bidding frenzy that free agency was supposed to offer. Atlanta signed him to start, the Dodgers traded for him to get innings, and in late September he was released. He scored a non-roster invite to Angels camp to start 2017, and within 20 games was the Angels’ fill-in closer.

It didn’t take him that long in St. Louis. Never did, really.

When it became clear in spring training that the Cardinals’ starters were healthy and Jack Flaherty was ready as an understudy, manager Mike Matheny approached Norris about what role he’d like to chase: starter or reliever. Norris had done a lot of chasing. He chased wins. He chased free agency. He chased travel and adventure. What he told Matheny is that in the bullpen, after all this time, he’d found something there at the end of games. He found himself.

“I was looking for that clear path to what’s the best version of you,” Norris says. “It’s taken a lot, definitely, putting it all back together, putting myself where I feel happy with who I am, what I’m about, and just being better, on and off the field. What’s the best thing for Bud? What’s the best thing for the team? I think the backend of the bullpen could answer both. That’s the best avenue.

“I want to run with it.”

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Fantasy Fare: The wait goes on for Greg Holland owners

Fantasy Fare: The wait goes on for Greg Holland owners

It’s been nearly two weeks since Greg Holland, the last notable free agent to sign, was called up to begin his reign as the latest closer for the St. Louis Cardinals. It was understood that Holland, who racked up 41 saves last season for the Rockies, would be given a couple of innings at the major-league level to ease into the role and fantasy owners who took a late-round chance on him signing somewhere had to be gloating. But here we are, 13 days later, and Holland has yet to make a ninth-inning appearance for the Cards. The all-too-obvious reasons are two-fold. First, Bud Norris, who was keeping the seat warm for Holland, has been doing a bang-up job, going 4-for-4 in save opps with a 1.93 ERA and 17-1 K-BB ratio over 9.1 innings. Second, It’s not as if Holland is forcing the team’s hand with an 8.10 ERA over his first five outings. He walked four of the five batters he faced (one intentional) the night of his callup on April 9, looked like he’d regained his footing with a couple of shutout innings the next few days, but then struggled again on Tuesday, giving up two more walks and a monster homer to Cubs’ Javier Baez without getting an out. His Cards sample size is so small — 3.1 innings, 19 batters faced — that looking for anomalies in his peripheral stats wouldn’t be fair. But it should be noted that his four-seam fastball, which registered 93.8 mph last year, has spiked the radar gun at a glacial 87.1 the past couple of weeks. But the problem isn’t velocity as much as it is location as, prior to a four-up three-down seventh inning on Thursday, he had thrown almost as many balls (32) as he had strikes (33). We’d like to say he’ll get the job eventually, but in the erratic world of closers, Norris could wind up hanging on to it all season, or it could easily be someone else entirely getting the saves.

♦ Still in the ninth inning, Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen, despite giving up six earned runs already this season (only four fewer than he yielded all of last year), won’t be lifted from the closer’s role. Manager Dave Roberts says the big lefty’s track record has earned him the right to try and get out of his rare funk.

♦ Logan Morrison slugged his first for homer for the Twins on Friday night, which wouldn’t be such a big deal except that it was just his fourth hit of the season covering 48 ABs. His AVG has yet to clear the cherished .100 mark in 2018. You could point a finger at his absurdly low .088 BABIP but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. LoMo is putting the ball in play at roughly the same rate he did last year in Tampa when he hit .246 with 38 HRs. However, he is being way more aggressive at the plate as a Twin, swinging at 54.7% of the pitches he sees, which is well above his career mark of 43.9. The result has been a lot of soft contact mark (i.e., grounders and pop-ups) — 25.7% compared to 17.5 last year. Of note, Morrison’s swing rate of pitches in the strike zone is up 10% from 2017 while his zone contact rate is up just 1%. Honestly? Maybe all the guy needs is glasses. He wouldn’t be the first.

♦ Another early struggler on a new team is Randal Grichuk on the Blue Jays, who has finally been shown the bench after a 5-for-65 start to the season. Like Morrison, Grichuk has seen a large chunk of hard contact from last year with the Cards replaced by soft. Unlike Morrison, he is swinging less, taking a few more walks and trying to spray the ball more often. The Jays have even got him standing more upright in the box, a move that appeared to help early this week when he went 2-for-4 with a homer against K.C. But a subsequent 0-for-11 run sealed his immediate fate. Most likely, Grichuk just needs time to adjust to the new plate approach, which he may not get now with the emergence of Teoscar Hernandez. Oddly enough, it’s a situation not entirely unfamiliar to Grichuk, who was made expandable in St. Louis last year when callup Tommy Pham grabbed hold of his starting RF job and never let go.

WAIVER WATCH
With fantasy rating out of 5

Mac Williamson
OF, Giants
* *
With a career .227 AVG and 10 HRs over parts of three seasons, there was little to get excited about here. But the 27-year-old RH swinger apparently re-tooled his swing after starting the year in triple-A, with stunning results — a .487 AVG, six HRs and a 5-7 K-BB ratio in just 50 plate appearances. Recalled on Friday, he went 1-for-4 with a HR. Playing time is still a question mark, even with Hunter Pence out until June, though a carryover of his minor-league results could potentially unseat Gregor Blanco and Austin Jackson for a starting role.

Tyler O’Neill
OF, Cardinals
* *
Though his stock as an elite prospect has dropped, he was still hitting .388 with six HRs in triple-A when called up this week. Only problem is that the Cards outfield right now is healthy. Dexter Fowler is hitting just .176 so maybe there are some ABs to be had there if O’Neill can take advantage the way Tommy Pham did last year.

Luke Maile
C, Blue Jays
* *
With four consecutive multi-hit games, the Jays backup is getting more starts recently than one would have expected. The light-hitting righty is now batting a lusty .480 with nine RBIs and has even tossed in a surprise steal. Is this for real? With a career .207 AVG, we doubt it. Maile also had a few similar hot streaks in Tampa, only to fall back.

HOT AND NOT
Batter the past two weeks
Jaiver Baez CHC
.359, 6 HRs, 16 RBIs, SB
Jed Lowrie OAK
.388, 5 HRs, 16 RBIs
Ozzie Albies ATL
.388, 4 HRs, 12 runs, SB
Asdrubal Cabrera NYM
.373, 4 HRs, 13 runs
Mallex Smith TB
.386, 6 runs, 3 SBs
– – – – – – – – – –
Miguel Sano MIN
.161, 1 HR, 2 RBIs
Edwin Encarnacion CLE
.128, 1 HR, 2 RBIs
Domingo Santana MIL
.191, 0 HRs, 0 SBs
Justin Smoak TOR
.159, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs
Giancarlo Stanton NYY
.200, 1 HR, 5 RBIs

WEIRD SPLIT
Anibal Sanchez ATL
HR/9 2017 — 2.22
HR/9 2018 — 0.64
Part of the reason balls aren’t leaving the yard as often this season is that his FB% rate is down a full 10%.

INJURY UPDATES
Puzzled why Ken Giles had apparently, and undeservedly, lost his closing job in Houston with Chris Devesnki getting back-to-back saves this week? Turns out Giles has had a sore back and was being held out … Second major injury to Kevin Kiermaier in two years, tearing a ligament in his thumb. He’s out until July … Texas avoided middle infield disaster this week when Jurickson Profar, starting in place of injured Elvis Andrus, suffered a mild concussion. He missed only two games, however … First major pitching casualty is Taijuan Walker who needs TJ surgery … Josh Harrison is out until June after breaking a bone in his hand … Orlando Arcia rolled his ankle on Friday but it doesn’t look serious … Byron Buxton has been sidelined with migraines … Carlos Gonzalez is nursing a sore hamstring … Tyler Flowers (oblique) starts a rehab stint this weekend … Anthony Rendon has been out all week after fouling a ball off his toe … Jonathan Schoop (oblique) hopes to be activated on Tuesday … Salvador Perez (knee) and Xander Bogaerts (ankle) should be back by next weekend, if not sooner … Also due back this week: Rich Hill, Logan Forsythe, Manuel Margot, Delino DeShields Jr.