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Using rules to advantage, Cards diversify 'pen

MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals' bullpen split up on Friday, and for the first time in nearly a week, it blinked. Ryan Sherriff struggled in a four-run sixth in a 4-2 loss to the Nationals in West Palm Beach, Fla., while Tyler Lyons allowed a run in St. Louis' 4-2 win over the Marlins in Jupiter.

Together, the lefties brought a concurrent end to a 15-inning scoreless streak strung together by St. Louis relievers, who had been so dominant lately that pitching coach Mike Maddux quipped: "If we could have a 16-man 'pen, we'd be stylin.'"

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals' bullpen split up on Friday, and for the first time in nearly a week, it blinked. Ryan Sherriff struggled in a four-run sixth in a 4-2 loss to the Nationals in West Palm Beach, Fla., while Tyler Lyons allowed a run in St. Louis' 4-2 win over the Marlins in Jupiter.

Together, the lefties brought a concurrent end to a 15-inning scoreless streak strung together by St. Louis relievers, who had been so dominant lately that pitching coach Mike Maddux quipped: "If we could have a 16-man 'pen, we'd be stylin.'"

Of course, the unit the Cardinals bring north will measure half that. But Maddux may actually be understating the number of pitchers St. Louis will cycle through over the course of the season. The Cardinals used 25 pitchers in 2017, a number that challenged the single-season franchise record but actually ranked low across the Majors. Nineteen hurlers contributed in some relief capacity, many armed with roster options that allowed the club to shuttle them back and forth between the Minors and Majors.

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"We're seeing all of these [starters] benefit from these outings that aren't quite as long, but it creates a whole lot of work for our bullpen," manager Mike Matheny said. "So we have to have fresh arms in the Minor Leagues and guys with options that we can send back and forth. That's the trend in the game right now, so we have to keep our eye on it."

Video: Player Spotlight: Ryan Sherriff

Teams crave this type of flexibility today, when winning, more than ever, takes a village. Eight-man bullpens have become a necessity, and creative management of them the norm. Last season, the Cardinals yo-yoed Sam Tuivailala back and forth from Triple-A Memphis five times. This year, the same could apply to John Brebbia, Matt Bowman or Sherriff.

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"Mentally, it was tough knowing you might do well and still be the odd guy out," Tuivailala said. "I told myself to try not to complain, even when it got frustrating."

The fact that Tuivailala is now out of options makes him a favorite to make the Opening Day roster over intriguing righties like Josh Lucas, John Gant and Mike Mayers, who can still be sent back and forth without being passed through waivers. While Bowman and Brebbia are the favorites to make the club, their remaining options could turn those last two bullpen spots into something of a revolving door.

Right-hander Dominic Leone isn't just poised to make the club, he's auditioning for late-inning duties this spring. But he also has options, meaning he could return to the Minors if he struggles -- or even if he doesn't.

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Even during Leone's breakout year for the Blue Jays last season, when he pitched to a 2.56 ERA and struck out 10.4 batters per inning, the righty was optioned five times.

"We're almost on call, but instead of saving lives, we're saving runs," said Leone. "As a younger player, I took it personally. In a sense, you're getting demoted. Nobody likes that, no matter what the line of work. Now that I've gone through that roller-coaster, you learn the only thing I can control is the 60 feet, 6 inches I work from every day."

For clubs, the advantage is plain to see. For years, they've collected data that points to pitchers being more effective in shorter stints, and now they're implementing it. Teams across the Majors are toying with limiting starters to two turns through the lineup. Meanwhile, reliever types continue to specialize. Accounting for the widening gap of middle innings means using more arms, and often coveting rested ones above all else.

"When you see how well our bullpen guys are throwing, you see why we'll want to give them the ball more," Matheny said. "However this plays out, we'll have to have a number of guys move back and forth to cover innings."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals