For Cards starters, the competition is on
Wells and others begin battle for rotation spots with live BP
JUPITER, Fla. -- It's the beginning of competition. It's just about getting a feel. It's an important first step. It's only a first step.
The first time throwing to hitters means different things to different pitchers. There's certainly an added boost in the adrenaline level when a pitcher is trying to get his offerings past a hitter. At the same time, it's not game-level intensity, and nobody is going to make the team based on a throwing session at 11 in the morning on Field 5.
Kip Wells, slotted in as the new No. 2 starter on the World Series champion Cardinals, threw to hitters for the first time on Wednesday. He faced a group that included John Rodriguez and top prospect Colby Rasmus.
"Early on, there's a fine line between, am I trying to paint the corner or am I trying to just get ahead in the count," Wells said. "For me, the tendency is always to throw more to the corner than I need to. The ball's going to move, and if that's the case, giving myself a little bit of a margin for error gives me a chance to get ahead in the strike zone."
Wells has battled health problems for much of the past three seasons, most recently a freakish foot injury that derailed his brief stint with the Texas Rangers. Still, he said there were no questions in his mind when he took the mound. He expected to feel fine physically, and he did.
"I feel as normal as I felt when I pitched last year -- other than the fact that I broke my foot at the end of last season," he said. "I was fine, and then I broke my foot. It's the first time I've faced hitters since then, but I didn't have any doubt, or think it was going to be some new, uncharted territory."
Among the others seeing hitters on Wednesday were fellow starter Adam Wainwright, who faced a group that included Albert Pujols, and second-year reliever Josh Kinney. Wainwright got Pujols to bail out from a curveball, providing a chuckle to the slugger.
Kinney wore the affect most common to a pitcher after an early-spring throw: pleased to get his work in, unimpressed with how he threw the ball.
"It's just about getting back out there, dusting the cobwebs off," he said. "I'm just working on throwing strikes and getting comfortable."
The Cardinals begin live batting practice -- which they refer to as "pitching practice" -- earlier in the spring than some teams. It's a major part of the camp regimen. It benefits the hitters to see some live pitching, but it's really all about the pitchers.
"All we're doing," said pitching coach Dave Duncan, "is conditioning right now -- conditioning their arms and conditioning them to the strike zone and facing hitters."
One complication for some pitchers is the screen in front of them. Kinney said he'd much rather not pitch behind the protective screen. For ace Chris Carpenter, on the other hand, it's a welcome addition -- since he's been hit by batted balls more times than he cares to count.
Before long, the screen will be gone and the hitters will be wearing something other than Cardinals red. But for the time being, this is what the pitchers have to work with. So they work.
"Today wasn't a day where I came out and said, 'Let's find out if I'm right,'" Wells said. "It was just a matter of, will I throw 25 out of 40 strikes? Will I throw seven? Will I throw 37?
"It probably was about 50 percent."
Not too bad for February 21.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.