Reading tea leaves: Top third of Cardinals’ batting order appears set

No surprise here: Matt Holliday looks to be bound for the three-hole in the Cardinals' lineup -- as usual.

Steve Mitchell/Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — It looks like the Cardinals’ batting order is just about set. The top third, anyway.

For the fourth time this spring, Matt Carpenter, Jason Heyward and Matt Holliday were in the lineup together and for the fourth time, they went 1-2-3 in the batting order.

Coincidence? Not likely.

Said manager Mike Matheny before the Cardinals lost 7-6 to the Astros on Tuesday, "I’ve been very clear it’s not a time to mess around with Carp."

And about Heyward in the two-hole: "I don’t think I’ve made too many questions about that that could potentially be a nice fit from the first day we got Jason. I think it’s someplace where he feels comfortable."

And Holliday, of course, has been a fixture in the third spot since the departure of Albert Pujols.

Having Heyward before Holliday is like having two three-hole type hitters, only one gets up before the other.

"That’s a great way of looking at it," Matheny said. "You think all the things that Jason brings to the plate with being able to get on base, the freedom to drive the ball and get on base and be athletic and do your thing. All of those are very much in his skill set and fits in that (two) spot pretty well."

All three produced against the Astros. Carpenter singled and scored, Heyward had an RBI single and Holliday smoked a double to left field, bringing their early spring batting averages to .300, .444 and .571, respectively.

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THREE STRIKES

• Mixed results for young pitchers. Carlos Martinez did not dominate the Astros like he did the Marlins in his first outing last week, allowing three hits and a run in 2 2/3 innings. But on a day when his sinker was moving all over, he was able to complete his 49-pitch outing without a walk.

"That’s something he’s going to have to do," Matheny said. "Even if he has to back off a little bit to find the plate, it’s going to be better than most guys’ stuff."

Martinez said he went more with his sinker because he was not commanding his fastball like he wanted. Overall, he said via a translator, his arm felt strong and he was pleased with the effort but he "knows I will get better next time."

Trevor Rosenthal, working exclusively out of the stretch, took the loss when he gave up a long, two-run homer to Max Stassi on a 3-1 count. Rosenthal also issued a one-out walk. But perhaps more significant for someone who struggled against the first batter faced last year was that he struck out the first batter.

"I’ve seen him have two outings, and the first hitters he’s faced both outings have been strikeouts. That’s a good start," Matheny said. "The walk came back to haunt him like it almost always does, but he looks good. He really does."

SPRING TRAINING IMAGES

In his inning of work, lefty Kevin Siegrist gave up two hits, one to lefty hitter Colin Moran on a first-pitch breaker. More important, though, he continues to work his way back from last year’s arm woes with no issues.

"You have to tip your cap because if anybody has any kind of scouting report on Kevin Siegrist, lefties aren’t necessarily going to be up there sitting on breaking balls," Matheny said. "It was a pitch he’s going to get away with a lot of times because his fastball is so good. Velocity looks good, everything looks short and looks repeatable. I like what he’s doing."

• Keep an eye on Wilson. Jacob Wilson continued to emerge as a player to watch. A 24-year-old infielder out of the University of Memphis, Wilson homered, doubled and singled against the Astros to lift his early-spring batting average to .500 (6 for 12). Wilson got his first start, at second base, and moved to third, where he snatched a bad-hop grounder and started a 5-4-3 double play. Wilson split last season between high-A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield, hitting .302/.362/.460.

"He’s done a nice job defensively, and offensively it’s pretty easy to see that he’s got a nice approach," Matheny said. "Coaching staff has talked from Day One he was a guy that really looked strong, nice solid consistent swing. He really knows his swing, too. He spends a lot of time talking about the mental side of the game and his approach. Pretty mature hitter."

• Neshek knew. Around mid-August, Pat Neshek had figured out he would not be returning to the Cardinals. General manager John Mozeliak not so subtly had let him know.


"He just kept saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got a lottery ticket,’" Neshek said Tuesday morning inside the clubhouse of his new team. "We’re not going to be able to sign you back."

And Neshek indeed turned his All-Star season as a setup man for St. Louis into the best contract of his career, a two-year, $12.5 million deal with the Astros. But he said it would not have taken nearly that much for him to stay with the Cardinals.

If the Cardinals had made an offer in July, he said they could have had him for "half" of what he got from the Astros. In August or September, it still would have been "a heckuva lot less" and "I probably would have given a discount at the end (of the season)."

Alas, he said, there never was an offer. When he first realized he would not be coming back, he was puzzled.

"You kind of go, what the heck," Neshek said. "You’re the Cardinals. They’re not small market, I don’t care what anybody says. In one sense, it was kind of disappointing."

But then he saw the flip side. "As a player, you always want to experience free agency and see what you might get," Neshek said.

Sure enough, he enjoyed the experience of being wanted by so many teams, especially just a year after he took a minor league deal with the Cardinals. "I pretty much got to pick where I wanted to go. It was fun," he said.

This is not to say Neshek harbors any bad feelings about the Cardinals. "It was a good run. I’m thankful for getting that opportunity and it worked out for everybody," he said.

His spring, however, isn’t working out as well as he would like after he learned Tuesday that he will be sidelined because of a stress reaction on the right side of his right foot. Neshek had to hobble onto the field to say hello to his former teammates during batting practice.

He said the injury could have been caused by a pair of new shoes or simply from tying his shoes too tight. "Something really stupid," he said.

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