LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Earlier this spring, bench coach Mike Aldrete gathered the Cardinals' starting pitchers and provided a presentation of stats.
They were reminded of their .126 batting average in 2013, the lowest by a St. Louis pitching staff since 1986, and the 139 strikeouts, one fewer than the league-high total. They were told where they ranked in various offensive categories, and invariably it was near the bottom.
The challenge was then issued for the pitchers to take better at-bats and make more productive outs, and extra hitting sessions were added into the early workout schedule to start that process. With the designated hitter spot gone, Saturday provided the first opportunity to show the fruits of that focus. Joe Kelly proceeded to set a lofty bar.
Kelly singled in his first at-bat, singled again in his next one and then topped his offensive showing with a two-run single in the sixth. In doing so, he became the first pitcher in almost four years to record three hits in a Spring Training game. As for Kelly's last three-hit game? High school, he said.
"We've been working on short swings and hitting balls hard over the second baseman's head," Kelly said after the team's 6-2 win. "It's just something that we're all trying to take pride in. It's just a new approach that all of us starters are trying to go with -- we're not trying to hit a home run, not trying to pull every single pitch. Just hit the ball where it's pitched and try to get on base for your teammate."
Oh, and Kelly pitched pretty well, too.
"He wanted it to be a one-man show right there," manager Mike Matheny said. "It was fun to watch how he went about it all day."
In addition to all the time he spent on the bases, Kelly lasted longer on the mound than any Cardinals pitcher all spring. That had everything to do with his efficiency. Relying on his sinker to induce early-in-the-count contact and ground balls, Kelly threw eight pitches in the first inning and nine in the second. Kelly ended up getting through 5 1/3 innings on 73 pitches, at least one of which registered 98 mph on the Champion Stadium scoreboard radar gun.
Kelly was still hitting 95-97 mph with his fastball into the sixth. At one point, Kelly said Trevor Rosenthal approached him in the dugout to let him know he was "throwing flames."
"Days like today make you see why he can be the guy that gets the ground ball," Matheny said. "I think it's more the mindset of what you're trying to do with each pitch. He's got the stuff to be efficient with quick outs. And he's got the stuff to put guys away, too. Today was a great display of that."
It was easily the sharpest of Kelly's three spring outings. His sinker did more sinking than side-to-side running, something Kelly said he made a conscious effort to fix. He kept a repeatable delivery and watched his curveball become more effective the longer he pitched.
Kelly has as many as two more starts to make before the Cardinals settle on a fifth starter, which seems to be shaping up as a two-man competition between he and Carlos Martinez. Could his handling of the bat tip things in his favor?
"I guess it could give me a little bit of an edge just to make contact and not strike out," Kelly said. "But it's ultimately about pitching and getting guys out."
Relief job open for odd man out of rotation
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Cardinals have not yet settled on their five-man rotation, but manager Mike Matheny did hint at the plans the organization has for the starting pitcher who is squeezed out of a spot.
Speaking before Joe Kelly's start on Saturday, Matheny said that he envisions the odd man out likely getting "a real good look at a late-inning opportunity." It's looking like the final rotation spot will come down to a choice between Kelly and Carlos Martinez. Both have bullpen experience, which is why the Cardinals are comfortable having either pitcher make that switch once the season starts.
With Jason Motte set to begin the season on the disabled list, the Cardinals do not already have a designated eighth-inning setup man. Martinez pitched the eighth several times during the postseason. Kelly pitched in tight October spots a year before. The Cardinals, in designating him a long reliever out of spring last season, did not maximize Kelly's abilities early in 2013 and do not want to follow that approach again.
"I think with either of these guys, you realize they've earned the right to be able to pitch big innings," Matheny said. "They've earned the right to be able to continue to fight for a starting job. Any of them will be prepared for what that might be."
That role would also include as-necessary long relief, since the Cardinals are continuing to build up the pitch counts of everyone vying for a rotation spot. Jobs could shuffle, too, upon Motte's return. The organization is hopeful he will only miss the first few weeks of the season as he finishes his Tommy John rehab.
"I think there is some flexibility there," Matheny said. "You're talking no matter who it is, take any of those starters and put them in the bullpen. All of them have shown the ability to pitch big innings, whether it be late or be that guy who throws multiple."
Healthy Ramsey wants stolen-base total to rise
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Cardinals have gotten plenty of praise already for making the first-round choice that they did in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. Without Michael Wacha, the organization may well have been watching the World Series from home last October.
But Wacha wasn't the only player the Cardinals took in that round, which means James Ramsey now has the task of making sure he doesn't become the forgotten one.
Ramsey, taken four spots below Wacha in that Draft class, has been soaking up the experiences of his first big league Spring Training over the last month. Early on, he followed the lead of Jon Jay, a University of Miami product who Ramsey, while playing at Florida State University, heard his head coach talk a lot about.
There have been opportunities to learn from guest coaches as well, including Gold Glove Award-winning outfielder Jim Edmonds and 1985 Most Valuable Player Award winner Willie McGee. It was McGee who took Ramsey into the batting cage to help him work on the technique of bunting down the first-base line. They also talked stolen bases, something Ramsey wants to collect more of this season.
After signing in June 2012, Ramsey went 10-for-12 in stolen base attempts while playing in 56 games. He expected to see that total rise dramatically when he played his first full pro season, but a hamstring injury stalled that area of his game. Ramsey played in 112 games last season, but he attempted only 13 steals. He was successful in nine of them.
"I had a good start to my pro career just getting that confidence to go," Ramsey said. "Then last year, unfortunately, having that hamstring [injury] that I went out with early was something that affected my running all the rest of the season. I just didn't feel like I had as much explosiveness."
That drove Ramsey to dedicate about 30 minutes of prehab work -- proactive exercises to help avoid injury -- before he went into the weight room each day during the offseason. He wants to be aggressive on the basepaths, but he knows that requires an uninhibited body.
"I know that I can run with the best of them," Ramsey said. "Also, I think picking up on the nuances in a game is something that in the Fall League, I got down pretty good. Really, it's a science. And once you don't have to rely on base coaches to give you [the] time [it takes for the pitcher to deliver his pitch] and you can start diagnosing what the catchers are doing, that's important. It's going to be a big part of my game. I'm not going to necessarily steal 100 bases in a Minor League season, but I think I've proven, especially in the Fall League when there were a few times where we needed to win games and get me on second base, I was able to do that.
"A lot of it is confidence-wise, too, and I feel good about where I'm at right now."
Ramsey finds himself trying to distinguish himself among a strong group of advanced Minor League outfielders. With Stephen Piscotty, Oscar Taveras and Randal Grichuk expected to start the season in Triple-A, Ramsey may find himself back in Double-A, only because that's where playing time would be. After starting the year in advanced Class A, Ramsey played the majority of 2013 with Springfield. He finished the season with one game in Triple-A. Combined, Ramsey hit .265/.373/.440. He was then one of the players the Cardinals selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League.
Matheny adds new entries to personal blog
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Continuing an initiative that he started last spring, manager Mike Matheny has resumed blogging on his website, mikematheny.com. Matheny said he was moved to keep writing about issues facing youth sports and offering advice to coaches and parents because of the strong, positive response he received regarding his entries in 2013.
"I got something almost every day from people, fans who pick up on it all over baseball, not just Cardinal fans," Matheny said. "It's been encouraging to just throw some things out there."
Matheny has been an advocate for changes in youth sports and uses his website to feature his "Matheny Manifesto," a list of conditions he wrote out to parents after being asked to coach a youth baseball team. He has since used his platform as Cardinals manager to continue encouraging character and sportsmanship over winning at the youth level.
Matheny was diligent with his blogging early last season before pulling back late in the season due to "writer's fatigue," he admitted on Saturday. He has written four entries since the start of Spring Training and he expects to again incorporate videos throughout the year.
• For the first time this spring, the Cardinals did not use a designated hitter in Saturday's game. The Cardinals will continue to let their pitchers hit, except in games against American League clubs. There are four of those remaining on the schedule, and it will be a game-by-game basis as to whether the Cardinals use a DH on those days.
• The Cardinals will open the season with a five-man bench, Matheny reiterated on Saturday, and still plan to include two infielders, two outfielders and a backup catcher in that group.
• The Cardinals have scheduled starts for Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller over the next two days, but they have not announced their rotation plans beyond that date. To this point, the Cardinals have been using six starting pitchers this spring.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.