JUPITER, Fla. — What might’ve seemed like an unorthodox starting point for Cardinals left-handers Steven Matz and Jordan Montgomery actually served as the latest step in a return to familiar patterns.
Matz and Montgomery, two-fifths of the club’s projected starting pitching rotation, made their first “starts” of the spring season on a back field at the club’s spring training complex on Tuesday.
Right-hander Jack Flaherty tossed his first outing in the same fashion on Monday morning.
Instead of taking the mound to face another’s club at Roger Dean Stadium or one of the other Grapefruit League ballparks, they pitched on a practice field to hitters from their own organization.
Following a 2020 season that included a three-month interruption to spring training followed by a 60-game season amid a global pandemic, a 2021 season played under strict health and safety protocols then a 2022 season and spring training altered by MLB’s owners having locked out the players, getting the desired work mattered much more to Matz and Montgomery than the setting.
“It’s been crazy, and the past two years I’ve been on two different teams,” Matz said of recent seasons. “So I was getting used to everything last year. I definitely feel more comfortable this year having a normal spring. I got down here early to get myself in a groove, give myself a longer runway. That definitely helped.”
Matz signed with the Cardinals, his third club in a three-year span from 2020-22, prior to the start of the MLB lockout.
On the heels of an offseason when he was barred from having contact with the organization and then jumped into an abbreviated spring training, Matz dealt with a shoulder and knee injuries that threw his 2022 season off track.
Matz went 5-3 with a 5.25 ERA over the course of 15 games (10 starts) in 2022. He pitched just 48 innings in his first season with the Cardinals.
This spring training, he’s healthy. It also marks the first time he’s gone into camp with the same team he finished the previous season with since 2020.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals haven’t even had a full calendar year with Montgomery in their organization. They acquired Montgomery from the New York Yankees on Aug. 2.
In 11 starts with the Cardinals last season, Montgomery went 6-3 with a 3.11 ERA and struck out 61 batters in 63? innings. For the season, he posted a record of 9-6 with a 3.48 ERA, 158 strikeouts in in 178? innings with WHIP of 1.09 and opponents batter .235 against him in 32 starts.
Montgomery’s baseball preparation was the only standard thing about his offseason. He got married in December.
“I had a crazy, chaotic offseason,” Montgomery said with a chuckle. “I did my best. I basically planned my whole wedding around my throwing program. That’s just baseball life. But I think I did a pretty good job showing up ready. Arm was in shape. Moving pretty well. Now, I can just zero in on stuff I want to work on.”
The Cardinals will count on Matz, 31, and Montgomery, 30, along with Flaherty to form a contending-caliber rotation with veteran mainstay Adam Wainwright and two-time All-Star Miles Mikolas.
Tuesday, Matz and Montgomery alternated innings and faced the same group of hitters, their Cardinals teammates Paul DeJong, Nolan Gorman, Moises Gomez and Tres Barrera, in a simulated game in the morning before the Cardinals hopped on a bus to go play a spring training exhibition game against the Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach.
Montgomery pitched the equivalent of two scoreless innings plus one additional batter, while Matz pitched three scoreless innings.
Montgomery faced seven batters, struck out three (one swinging, two looking) and didn’t allow a batter to reach base.
He said he went in with a goal to work both sides of the plate, change speeds and get the right “shapes” on his pitches.
Montgomery also wanted to be aggressive and admitted he pitched differently than he likely would have in a game. For example, he used his sinker more often than he typically would in order to see if he could get outs with it.
“Shapes are right. Velo is there. I’m not getting tired,” Montgomery said. “I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve been in a while. I’m light, strong. I feel good. My arm feels ‘whippy.’ I came in pretty ready. I’m trying to just build up as much as I can.”
Matz went through his first two innings on just 20 pitches. He tossed 13-more pitches in an extra frame. He faced a total of nine batters, walked one, allowed one hit on a flare to center field and struck out two. He also had two double plays turned behind him.
In the immediate aftermath of his outing, Matz was self-critical of his performance. Though he acknowledged that’s in his nature regardless of how he pitched.
“I just wanted to establish all my pitches for strikes, feel comfortable with each pitch and what I wanted to do with it,” Matz said. “That was ultimately what I wanted to do. I started feeling really comfortable with my change-up towards the end, which is going to be huge for me.
“Fastballs arm-side, I wasn’t really happy with. Just feeling all my pitches, getting used to the pitch clock, how the cadence of that works. So we got the work in.”
Both Montgomery and Matz are expected to make their next starts in exhibition games.
With a day off on Wednesday, either of them could easily push back their next outing one day in order to line them up on back-to-back days instead of the same day.
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