Walden tosses scoreless frame in return to mound

Former setup man out to prove he's healthy after shoulder issues

March 4th, 2016

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Right-hander Jordan Walden replaced nervousness with relief over a span of 18 sixth-inning pitches on Friday as he proved to both the Cardinals and himself that his rehabbed right shoulder continues to respond favorably.

Walden tossed a scoreless frame in his Grapefruit League debut in the Cardinals' 6-3 loss to the Astros. Aside from his brief (and unsuccessful) rehab assignment last July, Walden had not pitched against an opponent since last April. That's when his shoulder last gave out, leading to a season of rehab to strengthen the area around his rotator cuff.

The rush of adrenaline on Friday may have contributed to some of Walden's command troubles -- 10 of the 18 pitches he threw were balls -- but the overall results were encouraging. Walden struck out two batters, the second on a changeup in the dirt, and then induced a flyout after issuing a walk.

"I've thrown a lot of bullpens, but you can't simulate an actual game," Walden said. "That's where I was rusty. Just mentally preparing and going through it. … At this point, I'm feeling good and have been feeling good all spring. I'm trying to keep it that way."

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The 28-year-old reported to Spring Training after an offseason of rehab and therapy near his home in Texas. He lost weight, built up strength and resumed what he described as a "weighted shoulder program." Walden said the program incorporates various exercises designed to strengthen the rotator cuff. It's something he had engaged in previous seasons before stopping last year.

Perhaps, Walden said, that contributed to the weakness that led to a season-ending shoulder strain.

"Everything is coming together," Walden said. "I feel a lot stronger than last year."

While there was no radar gun reading available at Osceola County Stadium, manager Mike Matheny said Walden's velocity appeared to be where it should at this point in spring.

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"It looked hard," Matheny said. "It did look right. No doubt about it."

But Walden has more to do than prove his health this spring. The Cardinals have challenged him to win a bullpen job, and, specifically, his role back. The Cardinals stocked up on relief help this winter not knowing whether they could count on contributions from Walden.

A year after coming to camp as the planned setup man, Walden will have to jockey for late-inning assignments along with Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, Seung Hwan Oh and Jonathan Broxton. The best case for the Cardinals, of course, is that each of those five is healthy and effective, thereby allowing Matheny more flexibility in how he deploys his relievers.

"I like having that recipe that works, but I think we're going to have multiple options, multiple recipes for when we need to give guys rest," said Matheny, who has tended to be formulaic when it comes to covering the final three innings of a game. "I would rather it not have to be the exact same three, but that we have a couple interchangeable parts and we still get the same results."