Cardinals rookie Michael Blazek captures elusive debut

ST. LOUIS — Shortly after a major league debut that surely felt delayed, Michael Blazek stood in front of a nearly-empty locker and described a feeling of relief.

“It’s good for your confidence just to get out there, no matter how you do,” the 24-year-old rookie reliever said. “Just getting your feet wet is probably a bigger deal than anything.”

Blazek would know better than anyone. His first stint as a big leaguer came and went before his cleats got a chance to dig into the mound. The Cardinals had called the right-hander up from Double A in late May, when John Gast’s injured shoulder sent him to the disabled list. Less than a week later, and without a debut to show, Blazek was headed to Triple-A Memphis, the chess piece traded for rookie starter Michael Wacha.

“When he came up, there just wasn’t an opportunity,” St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “Every game was tight. We tried to get him in a couple times, got him hot twice. It just didn’t work out.”

Saturday turned out to be a different story. Blazek again arrived at Busch, this time trading places with demoted rookie starter Tyler Lyons. The reliever-for-starter swap will work — for now. But more changes could be on the way.

Because Lyons lost control of his fastball, the Cardinals’ fifth starter position is vacant. With three off days in the next two weeks and the All-Star Break quickly approaching, naming Lyons’ replacement is not a time-sensitive matter — especially when rookie reliever Joe Kelly has been dubbed the interim fifth starter if needed.

“We’ve drawn up easily a dozen models already, trying to think of the pros and cons of each,” Matheny said when asked about potential scenarios.

Patience has become the buzzword at Busch.

“We don’t have to make a decision today,” Matheny said. “So, we’re not going to.”

Maybe Kelly claims the starting spot and Blazek stays in the bullpen to fill the hole. Maybe not. If not knowing what’s next bothers him, he isn’t showing it.

“Going through the organization, you just kind of learn to adapt to whatever situation happens,” Blazek said. “You try not to anticipate, or expect anything.”

He earned his second call-up by becoming the hottest reliever in Memphis. While Matheny confirmed lefty Marc Rzepczynski is fully on the Cardinals’ radar after crafting a 1.17 ERA in his past 10 appearances, he said Blazek — who struck out 19 hitters and walked just three in 11 1/3 innings — was the most qualified candidate.

“He’s been the best down there,” the manager said. “His efficiency, and just getting outs. He’s been able to throw a couple innings, and he’s done it well. He’s been able to prove to our development guys that he’s ready for it.”

He proved it Saturday night, when he took the mound with the Cardinals trailing by two runs in the top of the ninth. He hit 94 miles per hour on his first fastball to Leonys Martin, then struck him out with a 75-mph curve to end the at-bat. Jurickson Profar suffered a similar strikeout fate. Then Rangers leadoff man Ian Kinsler hit a ground ball to first base to end the inning.

“This is something you’ve been dreaming for 15 years, since you started playing,” Blazek said of his debut. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”

The locker behind him was mostly bare. There were just a couple pairs of shoes, approximately eight less than some of his veteran teammates. Where others’ hangers were heavy with jerseys and warmup jackets acquired over time, his held mostly air.

Change looms. Settling in really isn’t an option right now. But when Blazek’s chance finally came, he left little to be desired.

“That was a good first day out,” Matheny said. “And hopefully, that’s what we continue to see.”

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