PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Daniel Ponce de Leon had a clear motivation for the work he did this offseason on smoothing out his delivery to help command his offspeed pitches.
He doesn’t want to be on the I-55 shuttle anymore, going back and forth between St. Louis and Triple-A Memphis.
“I know if I go out there and I pitch and they’re like, ‘This guy’s good, we’ve got to put him somewhere,’ then that’s it,” Ponce de Leon said. “I just want to be the one in the big leagues, not the one going back and forth when, ‘Hey, we need a starter, come on,’ and then sent back down.”
Every time he pitches is a chance to show the Cardinals that he belongs in St. Louis. In the Cardinals' 3-2 loss to the Mets on Friday, he threw three scoreless innings, allowing two hits while striking out four and walking none, which was key. The offspeed command was what he struggled with the most during his time in the Majors last year.
“I think that was the final step,” he said. “The consistency of the command, the delivery. And that was the huge focus this offseason. Now my cues are two to three things, max. Maybe two. Just get lined up and throw it.”
Ponce de Leon flashed his high fastball Friday and got ahead in the count with hitters, but he also showcased his curveball and a slider that at times had a new grip on it -- one that he learned Friday morning from Austin Gomber.
“I was asking questions and I kind of used it,” Ponce de Leon said. “I mean, you see it, but I got some good break I think on it. I liked the way it looked.”
Ponce de Leon is on a starter’s schedule and is competing for one of two rotation spots with the Cardinals. He could open the season as the ace in Triple-A. He could also see some time in the bullpen. His pitch mix, along with the deceptive velocity on his fastball, could play well as a reliever -- or even a closer.
“He can make a real impact because his stuff is really good,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “He’s got multiple weapons that the eye test will tell you and the measurables will tell you that are real weapons. Now it’s about being consistent with that stuff. Not perfect. He doesn’t feel like he has to be perfect. That’s not reasonable, but knowing what you’re going to get, if he does that, he’s going to be effective for us, regardless of role.”
Carpenter likely to return Sunday
Matt Carpenter, who was scratched from Wednesday’s game with back tightness, will likely return to the Cardinals' lineup on Sunday. Carpenter said that he was hoping for Saturday to be the return date, but the Cardinals feel like they have the time to give him another day of rest rather than push him forward too quickly.
Shildt said that Carpenter hasn’t regressed from when the back tightness appeared and that if it was the regular season, he would be playing.
“Wasn’t very serious to begin with, and it’s really pretty much behind him, but we’d like to keep it that way,” Shildt said.
• Andrew Miller made his spring debut Friday and struggled with the first three batters he faced before getting out of the inning. The veteran lefty hit Jake Hager, hit Tim Tebow and walked Edgardo Fermin before getting a double play as one run scored and striking out Patrick Mazeika looking.
“That’s kind of first time out and trying to hone in on what he’s doing,” Shildt said. “I don’t think we’ll make too much of the little bit of a slow start for the first touch on the mound in live competition in four months.”
• Adam Wainwright, starting at Clover Park for the second time this spring, allowed one run on four hits. After a 24-pitch first inning, Wainwright settled down and finished with 44 pitches in three innings. He struck out two, including Tim Tebow, who walked the last time Wainwright faced him.
“The first time I faced him, he took a really tough breaking ball just under the zone,” Wainwright said. “And then when I got him 0-2 today, I threw him a really tough breaking ball right barely under the zone. He took both of them so ... I wanted to see if he was just not swinging.”
• Alex Reyes had a much better outing than his spring debut Tuesday, when he threw 24 pitches, recorded only one out and struggled with fastball command. In an inning of relief Friday, Reyes struck out two swinging. His only mistake was throwing a fastball right down the middle to Andrés Giménez, who homered to right field.
• Shildt met with members of the Office of the Commissioner on Friday to discuss a variety of things, ranging from rule changes to the enforcement of those rules. The annual meeting also touched on what Shildt called a “gray area” -- the use of foreign substances on the baseball.
“There’s been this understood, mostly acceptable, hitter-pitcher relationship where guys are throwing four miles per hour faster than guys were five, six years ago,” Shildt said. “As a hitter, you want that guy to know where it’s going. Now maybe one of the reasons he’s throwing a little bit harder is he’s creating something with his spin.
“The issue now really is the ethics that are taking place that I’m pretty sure the Commissioner’s Office wants to be sincere about -- is the other substances that are out there, where people are intentionally figuring out concoctions, elixirs that they’re measuring that says, ‘Oh, this increases your spin rate.’ So that’s part of what is taking place now.
The Cardinals return to Roger Dean Stadium on Saturday to host the Nationals at 12:05 p.m. CT. Carlos Martínez is slated for his first spring start and will go three innings or 50 pitches. Ryan Helsley, Jake Woodford, Giovanny Gallegos and Tyler Webb are scheduled to follow.
Anne Rogers covers the Cardinals for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @anne__rogers and on Facebook.