Ellis, Matheny discuss infielder's role with Cards

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Describing his return to the field as "encouraging" and his knee as back to normal, Mark Ellis played three innings in the field and went 1-for-3 at the plate during Saturday's 5-2 win against the Astros. Because of left knee inflammation, it was his first Grapefruit League action since March 13.

Ellis expects to be uninhibited the rest of the way through camp and is willing to get his at-bat total up by appearing in Minor League games, if necessary. It looks to be too little, too late, however, for Ellis to supplant Kolten Wong as the team's starting second baseman.

While Ellis was nursing his knee injury, Wong was emerging as a standout hitter in camp. Since an 0-for-10 start in Grapefruit League play, Wong is 15-for-30 with a team-best eight extra-base hits and eight RBIs. Wong came in with the upper hand at winning the starting job and has done nothing to lose that positioning.

"I think he's answered a lot of questions," manager Mike Matheny said. "We still have a long way to go and the real season to get into, but so far he's really done a nice job of taking advantage of the opportunity."

That leaves Ellis to start on the bench, where he would be the primary backup at second and a potential backup at other infield positions. Because of the knee injury, he was not able to get his expected work on the left side of the infield.

Having Ellis healthy, though, is the first priority, and he will use the remaining time in spring to get his swing right. He said he felt fortunate to have been able to keep hitting while he was waiting for the inflammation to die down and that his timing was intact.

He singled in his first-inning at-bat off Houston left-hander Brett Oberholtzer on Saturday.

"I've been able to stay sharp," Ellis said. "The timing is all right. Still, the more at-bats you get, the better you're going to feel."

Ellis has been able to log 23 at-bats this spring. That is considerably less than his typical spring workload; in each of his last eight springs, Ellis had at least 53 at-bats.

"I'm always disappointed when I can't play," Ellis said. "You always want to be out there with the team. You don't want to be the guy in the training room."

Matheny said that he would lean on the medical staff for its recommendation on how hard to push Ellis during the team's final five days in Florida. The Cardinals would like to get the 36-year-old second baseman sufficient playing time, but not at the expense of risking aggravation of the knee.

"I was encouraged by the way I felt as the game progressed," Ellis said. "That is what was encouraging to me. I felt like my knee got stronger and stronger as the game progressed."

No walks vs. Astros most important to Wacha

STL@HOU: Wacha strikes out eight over seven innings

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha spent Friday afternoon watching Adam Wainwright handcuff the Nationals in a dominant eight-inning outing. "A tough act to follow, for sure," was how Wacha later described it.

Well, Wacha gave it a valiant try.

With a seven-inning, eight-strikeout performance on Saturday, Wacha pitched deeper into a game than any Cardinals starter not named Wainwright has this spring. He, too, was efficient (85 pitches, 55 strikes) and did not issue a walk in his second-to-last spring tuneup.

"They all felt good today," Wacha said of his four-pitch mix. His curveball got sharper as the game progressed, and his changeup was especially effective.

Wacha had at least one strikeout in five of his seven innings, and he has a combined 13 strikeouts in his past two starts (10 2/3 innings). He did not walk a batter in either of those outings, both against Houston.

"I like the zero walks part for sure," Wacha said. "That's when I get in trouble more times than not, is whenever I give up free baserunners, and then a couple singles after that, a run scores all because of the walk. If I can keep that number down, I feel a lot better about it."

Beyond Wacha and Wainwright, the Cardinals have done a much better job of minimizing the free passes of late. A combined seven pitchers have not issued a walk in the team's last 20 innings, and after walking 43 batters in the first 10 Grapefruit League games, the Cardinals have walked 26 over the past 11.

Adams shows glimpse of potential vs. lefties

STL@HOU: Adams drills a double to left for two runs

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Matt Adams put in the work over the offseason, setting up a pitching machine to throw lefty sliders over and over and over so that he could learn to better recognize them. That work has since produced positive results, which is helping to hush concerns about Adams' ability to hit against left-handers.

Adams understands that establishing himself as an everyday first baseman in the Majors will require that he puts up decent numbers against left-handed pitching. On Saturday, he showed a flash of that potential.

Adams faced Houston left-hander Brett Oberholtzer three times in the Cardinals' 5-2 win. In the first inning, he lined an opposite-field, two-run double off the wall. Two innings later, he crushed his team-best third home run to right. Though he flied out to left-center in his final at-bat, he made solid contact on that pitch from Oberholtzer as well.

"I'm seeing [lefties] well this spring," Adams said. "I've just been not bailing out, keeping that front side in there as long as possible. I'm picking the ball up and trying to see it as long as I can and make sure I put a good swing on it."

Adams went 0-for-2 against Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez on Friday but said he "knew my swing was where I needed it to be" after he flied out in the second of those two at-bats.

"Then I did the same thing today, and it carried over [the left fielder's] head," Adams added. "My swing is feeling good right now, and I'm feeling good with my approach."

Manager Mike Matheny has been intentional, when possible, in getting Adams into the lineup on days in which the Cardinals are facing a left-handed starter. The organization watched Adams actually thrive against left-handed pitching in the Minors -- he hit southpaws at a .313 clip in parts of four Minor League seasons -- but the Cardinals have not previously given him sustained big league opportunities against lefties.

That will change this season.

"As he was walking off the field today I said, 'I think you've proven that you can hit lefties OK,'" Matheny said. "I knew it was something he was working on, and there was really only one way to find out if what you have been working on is actually going to pan out in game situations. … He's got a nice approach right now and we're trying to keep him that way."

Worth noting

• Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz on Saturday made his second straight start for the Cardinals. It was likely to be his last one, too, as Matheny said "he probably won't be around much longer." The Cardinals want to send Diaz to Minor League camp so that he can play regularly.

Diaz went 1-for-3 on Saturday and played five innings in the field.

• Unable to get into Friday's game because of how deep Wainwright pitched, Randy Choate pitched an inning against Cardinals Minor Leaguers on Saturday. The Cardinals had him face three left-handed batters, Matheny said, and Choate retired the side on 13 pitches.

• Though Jhonny Peralta was listed on the travel roster that was hanging in the clubhouse prior to Saturday's game, he did not make the bus trip to Kissimmee. Matheny noted that Peralta was a "little sore" but said that was not the reason for his staying back. Rather the travel roster was posted before it had been finalized.

Keith Butler, who had not appeared in a game in nearly a week, pitched a scoreless eighth on Saturday. He allowed a leadoff single and then erased that baserunner by inducing a double play. With Wainwright throwing eight innings on Friday and Carlos Martinez pitching into the sixth two days earlier, the Cardinals have been challenged to find regular work for some of their relievers.