Gray (hamstring) lobbies Cards to make MLB return Tuesday

April 7th, 2024

ST. LOUIS -- Just days into 's first Spring Training with the Cardinals, his teammates and coaches were raving about the right-hander’s strong communication skills and the conviction with which he conveys what he is trying to do each time he pitches.

Evidently, the 34-year-old used his strong will and power of persuasion to successfully lobby the club into the direction of his next start.

Gray, the Cardinals' $75 million free-agent addition this offseason, will make his St. Louis debut on Tuesday night at Busch Stadium against the Phillies. The Cardinals had planned for Gray -- who hasn’t pitched in a game since straining his right hamstring in a Spring Training game on March 4 -- to make a rehab start at Triple-A Memphis on Tuesday, but the veteran pitcher convinced the club that he is ready to return to the Majors.

“He is as direct and honest of a human as you can ever encounter,” said Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol prior to Sunday's series finale vs. the Marlins. “If he says he is 100 percent himself and ready to go, from my seat I trust that.”

Marmol said that Gray will be limited to 65 pitches against the star-studded Phillies. Zach Thompson, who made the starting rotation following a strong Spring Training and was slated to start on Tuesday, will be held out of the rotation for now, Marmol said.

Gray, runner-up for the American League Cy Young Award in 2023 while with the Twins, signed in November to help stabilize a pitching staff that struggled mightily last season. However, this latest hamstring injury -- his third in three years -- wrecked the plans of Gray opening the season with the Cardinals.

“Waiting has not been easy, especially when the team was on the road and came back, and [continuing to wait] hasn’t been easy,” said Gray, who was in the dugout during the Cardinals' series vs. the Marlins. “It’s time for me to compete and put on the uniform -- it’s just time.

“Physically, I feel great. And mentally I’m in a great spot, and I just feel that I’m more than capable to go out and compete in a big league game. We talked through it, and as long as it worked out where it didn’t put too much stress on the bullpen or collectively put the team in a bad spot with me only having 60-70 pitches -- that was the main thing, making sure I wasn’t putting anybody else in a bad spot. But I feel normal and capable of getting outs.”

Gray moved his rehab from Florida to St. Louis this past week and pitched four innings and 54 pitches of a simulated game on Wednesday with Double-A Springfield. After professing good health with his hamstring and right arm following that outing, Gray said on Thursday that he felt strongly that his next start should be with the Cardinals instead of Memphis. Ultimately, Gray was able to convince the Cardinals of his wishes.

“Sonny Gray is very confident in how his body feels, and he says he’s 100 percent himself physically and mentally and he’s ready to contribute, and I trust that,” Marmol said. “This is a big piece for us and he’s beyond excited to compete and help us. I’m excited to see him out there in our [uniform] and seeing him do that. His competitive demeanor and personality are contagious, and you can’t have enough of that. We have a good amount of [competitive fire] here already, and by adding him to it, it feels like it could get fun.”

One factor that could have come into play with allowing Gray to start on Tuesday is the struggles endured thus far by Thompson, who is 0-2 with a 6.97 ERA and four home runs allowed in 10 1/3 innings of work. A year after the average velocity on his fastball was at 93.6 mph, Thompson’s fastball is at just 90.4 mph in two starts thus far this season, per Baseball Savant.

Before leaving Spring Training, the Cardinals gave Gray the option of opening the season with the big league club and going into games with a 50-pitch limit. Gray opted against that, instead remaining in Florida to pitch in a simulated game against Minor Leaguers. He was scheduled to pitch with Memphis on Wednesday, but that start was moved from Indianapolis to Springfield, Mo., because of weather concerns. (That Triple-A game in Indianapolis was ultimately postponed because of rain.)

Now, Gray’s first game action since the Cards' loss to the Nationals on March 4 will come against the Phillies and their power-packed lineup on Tuesday.

“Man, it’s super exciting,” closer Ryan Helsley said of Gray’s imminent return. “We’ve all watched him from afar for a few years and now to have him on our team, he’s a leader. The skill set he has and the mindset that he has, he’s going to elevate us. It’ll be fun and awesome to have him back with us when he’s ready to go.”