Starting job competition a battle of best friends

February 24th, 2024

JUPITER, Fla. -- Within minutes of completing his two-inning outing and his post-start conditioning work on Saturday, the 6-foot-4 left-hander scrambled to find his phone so that he could track how his primary competition for the Cardinals’ final starting slot had fared against the Mets.

Unlike the usual competitive, cut-throat nature of pro sports, Liberatore was actually eager to check in on fellow left-hander in hopes that he had pitched well in St. Louis’ other split-squad game in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Sure, Liberatore and Thompson are battling to make the club as the Cardinals No. 6 starter or a long reliever, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still root for one another, Liberatore said.

“Thompson’s one of my best friends in the whole clubhouse,” said Liberatore, who surrendered two hits and two earned runs in two innings of a 9-8 loss to the Marlins in the Grapefruit League opener. “It’s cool we’re competing, in a sense, but at the same time, neither of us are trying to wish the other one [to do] poorly. It’s been fun to have someone who is as competitive as I am and very similar to myself to push me and motivate me even more.”

With the Cardinals opening the regular season with eight straight games and scheduled to play 13 times in 14 days, manager Oliver Marmol has floated the idea of using a six-man rotation in late March and early April. Eventually, though, the sixth starter role will likely evolve into one of long relief. It’s fitting then, that it’s Thompson and Liberatore who are battling for that spot, considering that both shuttled between the bullpen and the starting rotation in 2023. Liberatore appeared in 22 games (11 starts), while Thompson started nine of his 25 games last season.

The battle for that No. 6 starter job figures to go down to the end of Spring Training, but the 26-year-old Thompson appeared to have won Round 1 on Saturday. Thompson allowed just one hit and a walk over two scoreless innings as the Cardinals beat the Mets 10-5 in Port St. Lucie.

Marmol said that the club would be looking for three things from Liberatore and Thompson this spring: Getting ahead in counts, throwing their curveballs for strikes and attacking with pitches out of the zone late in counts.

“Attacking the strike zone early -- if we can see that number go up as far as getting ahead early, that would be nice,” Marmol said of the 24-year-old Liberatore. “Then, once he gets there, we want him to execute the chase locations.

“That goes for Thompson, as well,” Marmol added. “Being able to get ahead of guys and land the breaking ball [is big]. You’ll see a bigger [curveball] you’re used to seeing, and then a shorter one that he’s able to command a bit better and land earlier in counts.”

The Cardinals saw a little bit of everything in Jupiter on Saturday, with some ragged play on both sides. New bench coach Daniel Descalso was the acting manager with Marmol in Port St. Lucie, which meant he got to face Marlins manager Skip Schumaker and first base coach Jon Jay, both teammates of his with the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals.

“It was the first day of Spring Training and you saw [a 5-4-3 putout], we saw a guy tag up from third with two outs and we saw a back-pick at first,” Descalso joked. “It’s Spring Training for everybody. I think there was a little bit of confusion with the scoreboard, and I don’t think it was right for any pitch but the first pitch of the day. But we’re ironing out the kinks.”

Ironing out the kinks is what Liberatore and Thompson will be trying to do this spring following uneven seasons in 2023. Liberatore was 3-6 with a 5.25 ERA last season while splitting time between Triple-A Memphis and the big leagues. Thompson was 5-7 with a 4.48 ERA, but he posted an impressive 72 strikeouts in 66.1 innings of work.

Liberatore said the friendship with Thompson blossomed when they watched each other flip in big, knee-buckling curveballs to opposing hitters. Since that moment, they have leaned on one another while trying to find their footing in the big leagues.

“I’d say the first thing that probably drew us together was the curveball,” said Liberatore, who had a tough break on Saturday when his perfectly spotted 96.6 mph fastball to Josh Bell was called a ball in the first inning. “We’ve got very similar breaking balls, and I had never seen anybody who threw theirs the same way I did until I met him. So, that was the first attraction, and then we just hit it off as people after that.”