McNeal: What I learned about the Cardinals at spring training

Matt Carpenter has been swinging a bat about as much as one man can, which speaks well of his work ethic even after signing a mega-millions contract.

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SOMEWHERE ON THE HIGHWAY BETWEEN JUPITER AND ST. LOUIS — As you can see, my time at spring training is over. After 17 days of sunshine, it’s time to head home for some March Madness and to wait for Opening Day.

Except for the disappointing absence of Oscar Taveras for all but a brief spell, Cardinals camp went pretty routinely. Which in the case of this club, is what you want. Nothing has happened in Florida to diminish the club’s status as decided favorite to return to win the NL Central.

The hitters are hitting. The starters besides Jaime Garcia are building up their pitch counts and, more important, have avoided injury. The bullpen has looked a bit shaky but, really, how can you be concerned with any bullpen that includes Trevor Rosenthal?

So, you might be wondering, two-plus weeks around the team and all I can tell you is what you already knew? Big picture, perhaps. But the best lessons often are found in the little things. I picked up tidbits on most of the Cardinals with a locker in the big-league clubhouse. Here are some of them:

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Matt Carpenter: The $52 million deal isn’t going to his head. Not only does Carpenter continue to arrive early — though no longer before Mike Matheny, the manager said — he still stays late. Often after he got his at-bats in a spring training game, I saw him change into his shorts and head to the batting cage. Not many guys take extra hitting before and after their games. If nothing else, Carpenter’s hands should be well calloused for his no-batting gloves approach.

Matt Holliday: He plans to take the now-famous pingpong table to Busch Stadium. It was a big hit of the spring and rarely went unused. One particularly fun pairing was Yadier Molina against Jose Oquendo. The old coach held his own.

Peter Bourjos: His legs aren’t all that’s quick. Watch him with a pingpong paddle in his hand and you can see why it took him about two games to be anointed by Holliday as the best player in the clubhouse.

Lance Lynn: He’s a pretty astute scout. I was watching the final inning of a game against the Mets from a perch just beyond the fence in right-center when Lynn hopped up to see who was pitching. No sooner had Seth Maness given up a two-run single than Lynn pointed out why the hitter, Matt Reynolds, had been a bad matchup for the sinkerballer Maness. Lynn somehow knew that Reynolds struggles with fastballs up-and-in, which is not a good pitch for the sinkerballer Maness.

Adam Wainwright: He’s still bothered by his World Series Game 1 start against the Red Sox, when he gave up five runs in the first two innings and the Cardinals lost 8-1. "My only regret about last season is knowing I did not pitch well in that game," Wainwright said. "Crazy things happened in that game, but I didn’t pitch well and it wasn’t for a lack of being prepared. I put more time in the film room than I had all year in that one start.

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"I put more time doing everything to being ready for that start and I just didn’t execute. That start was so uncharacteristic of me. It’s a game of adjustments, and I did not make adjustments like I should have, that I usually make very fast on the fly."

Jon Jay: He was the Cardinals’ hard-luck hitter of March, at least the first half of it. The often-stiff wind at Roger Dean Stadium cost him three home runs, according to Matheny. The skipper isn’t overstating that by much, either.

Kolten Wong: Five-foot-8 or not, he hits the ball hard. Nothing was more enjoyable than watching him turn around his spring after a slow start clearly had him down. When Wainwright good-naturedly called him out in the clubhouse for a tardy payment of some sort, it was like you knew the kid had arrived.

Allen Craig: He leads by example. Yes, that’s a cliche, but it still applies. We likely would not have known that Craig reached out to one of the club’s top prospects, Patrick Wisdom, in the offseason if Wisdom had not told us. Craig shrugged this off, saying it merely made sense for the two to work out together because they both live in the Inland Empire (a region of Southern California). Wisdom was thrilled to have the chance to spend time with one of the league’s top hitters, especially because Craig went out of his way to call on him.

Stephen Piscotty: He can play. Taveras went into spring with the label as the club’s top prospect, but I’m not sure he’ll leave with it. That’s more about Piscotty’s performance than Taveras’ injuries, too. The Stanford product showed a disciplined approach at the plate, covered a lot of ground in right field and had the best outfield arm in big-league camp.

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Jhonny Peralta: His range is limited. Very limited. When a line drive about five feet to his left zipped past him the other day, you thought, ‘Pete Kozma makes that catch easily.’ Peralta, who admits he doesn’t cover a lot of ground, looked sure-handed and smooth on the balls he was able to reach.

Carlos Martinez: He is listening. Matheny was talking about how difficult it can be sometimes to get young pitchers who throw 95 mph to understand they have more margin for error in the strike zone. He pointed to Martinez as one who has bought into the advice and become a better pitcher for doing so. Not coincidentally, Martinez was the most impressive starter in camp after the first three starts.

Molina: He’s smiling. A lot. That should make Cardinals fans smile, too.   

Matt Adams: He’s still a big dude. He changed his diet and reduced his body fat in the offseason, but his was no Lynn-in-2013 makeover. As Matheny said, "It’s not like he whittled away to nothing. He’s still a big fella."


Rosenthal: He’s still a youngster, and being treated as one. A bunch of Cardinals, including Rosenthal, were passing time at a table in the clubhouse Sunday morning when Matheny walked by. Piped up one, "Trevor says he’s not making any long bus rides." Matheny, feigning seriousness, approached Rosenthal and sternly asked him if that was true. Rosenthal pleaded that he never said such a thing. And yes, he was on the bus for the cross-state drive to Fort Myers the next day.  

Jason Motte: The beard is out of control. Even Bob Gibson has noticed. Gibson was walking to his car one morning when he spotted Motte and told him how much he wanted to grab that beard by two hands and pull. "It won’t come off," Motte said with a laugh. Gibson smiled, too, fortunately for Motte.

Tony Cruz: He’s in midseason form. He’d better be. With the club trying to save Molina’s innings for the regular season, Cruz gets a lot of work in spring training. He caught all nine innings one game in the second week of the exhibition season and figures to catch more innings in March than the next three months combined.

Michael Wacha: He’s making adjustments. Knowing he will need more than his fastball and changeup to succeed over a full season, Wacha is working on his curveball. Opposing hitters can only hope that spring training ends before it’s fully developed.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.