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4:47 AM UTC

ST. LOUIS — Each time he forced down that second breakfast, piled more food onto his plate for dinner or downed another protein shake before bed, Matthew Liberatore would think about nights like Wednesday when he’d be standing in the middle of the diamond at Busch Stadium and still going strong.

In an attempt to add some much-needed muscle and bulk to his previously rail-thin 6-foot-4 frame, Liberatore paired a stringent weight-lifting program with a daily 4,300-calorie diet in the offseason. As it turns out, that added strength did wonders for Liberatore’s fastball, pushing it from the mid-90s to the upper 90s and making it as much a weapon as the 12-to-6 curveball that once made him one of baseball’s best prospects.

Back in the Majors almost a year after making his Cardinals debut last May, Liberatore used that enhanced velocity to hold the Brewers scoreless with just three hits in five-plus innings in a 3-0 Cardinals victory. Liberatore’s effectiveness on Wednesday came in large part, he said, because of the concerted effort he made during the winter to be a stronger pitcher when his chance came along again.

“I came in about 20 pounds heavier than I did last spring; I was at 195 [pounds] when I showed up last year, and I was 215 when I showed up this year and I’m about 220 now,” said Liberatore, who struck out six and out-pitched Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes, the 2021 NL Cy Young winner. “A little bit of both, [weightlifting and eating] 4,300 [calories]. It was a lot, and it was definitely a job, but I knew what my goals were, and I knew it was worth it.”

Liberatore, the Cardinals’ surprise starter after he had compiled a 4-1 record at Triple-A Memphis, felt the benefits of his offseason strengthening plan in the fourth and fifth innings. That’s when three of his six strikeouts came thanks to a crisp fastball that he has more confidence in now that he is bigger and stronger.

“I think going out into those fifth and sixth innings last year, you’d see a lot of 92s and 93s and today you saw a lot of 94-plus,” Liberatore said. “It helps to be able to carry that [increased velocity] deep into games, especially when you’re going through the lineup that second, third and fourth time.”

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The Cardinals got the 23-year-old Liberatore some run support early when Nolan Arenado drove home teammate Paul Goldschmidt with an infield single for the 1,000th RBI of his career. Arenado, who came into the game having homered in each of his previous five games, nearly extended the streak to six in the third, but his smash down the left-field line curved foul just inches before the foul pole. Arenado, the ninth Cardinal to homer in five straight games, is one of just six active players with 300 home runs and 1,000 RBIs.

Liberatore caught a break in the fourth inning when Tyrone Taylor’s drive into the gap landed on the top of the wall and ricocheted back onto the field of play. After the smash was initially ruled to be a home run, video replays showed that the ball never went over the fence and Taylor was forced to stop at second. From there, Liberatore fanned Victor Caratini looking with a looping curveball to end the threat.

Liberatore’s effort allowed the Cardinals to take two of three from the NL Central-leading Brewers. Also, it drew plenty of praise from Burnes, who allowed the most hits [eight] he’s ever given up in seven career starts at Busch Stadium.

“They outplayed us in this series,” said Burnes, who surrendered a 419-foot home run to Paul DeJong. “They smacked us around the first night, we responded well [Tuesday] and then we played flat tonight, and they beat us. They were a better baseball team again tonight. We had a chance to win the series and couldn’t get anything going against Liberatore; you have to tip your cap to him for his first start of the year and keeping us quiet.”

Liberatore’s added strength showed up primarily in his velocity. He threw 48 four-seam fastballs with a max at 97.6 mph and at an average of 95.2 mph — up 1.5 mph over 2022. His seven sinkers were up 2.8 mph over last season and even his curveball had significantly more power (up 3.1 mph).

“I think [his velocity] plays up a little bit extra and I can get away with a few more mistakes,” he said. “I’m never trying to make mistakes, but some of those pitches I left over the middle last year that got hit for home runs might not be home runs anymore.”