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February 28th, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The road between Memphis and St. Louis was well-traveled by Cardinals pitcher Matthew Liberatore last season. The 6-foot-4 left-hander was optioned to Triple-A Memphis and recalled to the main club enough times to probably warrant a new set of tires.

Suffice it to say that Liberatore would rather toe the rubber of a pitcher’s mound in St. Louis instead of burning rubber on the road to Memphis in 2023. A couple more outings like the one he had Tuesday in the Cardinals’ 5-3 win against the Nationals just might earn him a permanent spot.

Liberatore needed only 14 pitches to retire the six batters he faced Tuesday at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, registering a pair of three-up, three-down innings in his 2023 Spring Training debut. He induced four groundouts and two flyouts in making quick work of the first six batters, and then he headed to the bullpen to finish his scheduled 30-35-pitch workout.

Liberatore, a first-round pick, 16th overall, by the Rays in 2018 after being named Arizona’s Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year, was traded to the Cardinals in 2020, and a year later, he was the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year with Memphis when he had a 9-9 record with a 4.04 ERA.

However, his ERA ballooned to 5.97 in nine games (seven starts) for St. Louis after being called up from Memphis several times in 2022. Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said prior to Liberatore’s first start this spring that he wanted to see how well the lefty commanded his pitches, particularly his fastball, which was mostly in the low-to-mid 90s on the radar gun last year and that he left up in the zone too much.

Breezing through his scheduled two innings didn’t provide a complete picture, but Marmol said he was pleased with what he saw.

“He got through that pretty quick,” Marmol said, adding that Liberatore made another 15-20 pitches in the bullpen to complete his workload for the day. “We wanted to make sure he got in his pitches. … He was getting ahead of hitters and pounding the strike zone, location was good. We didn’t get [any radar] on the fastball. Obviously, first time out, so won’t put a ton of weight into it. But all positive.”

Before Liberatore took the mound Tuesday, he had been staked to 2-0 lead, thanks to back-to-back solo home runs by Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, their first homers of the spring.

Liberatore promptly set down the first three batters he faced and then repeated it the second inning, barely enough time to break a sweat even on a sunny afternoon in South Florida before exiting the game.

Marmol said that if Liberatore has good command of his pitches, particularly his outstanding breaking pitches, then the low-to-mid 90s fastball can be more effective.

“I think the league continues to go in that direction of throwing heavy offspeed,” Marmol said. “Even guys with really good fastballs are doing it more than you might realize. . . . He’s just got to get ahead of guys and stay ahead of them, try to land secondary stuff.”

As for Liberatore, he said he is even on board to come out of the bullpen if that’s the road he needs to take for him to make the Opening Day roster and hopefully not have to make so many trips to Memphis this season.

“I just want to win a World Series, and I’ll take that whether it be in the bullpen or as a starter,” he said.

Suffice it to say that he took a positive turn in his first outing this spring.