Cardinal notebook: Live pitching practice heats up as Cards prep -

Cardinal notebook: Live pitching practice heats up as Cards prep for first spring game

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Tommy Pham practices tracking fly balls Tuesday in Cardinals spring camp. (Credit: KMOV) Tommy Pham practices tracking fly balls Tuesday in Cardinals spring camp. (Credit: KMOV)

JUPITER, FL. ( -- Tuesday was the first day of live batting practice sessions in Cardinal camp, featuring a handful of the team’s hardest throwers.

Several pitchers will only get one session against hitters before spring games start, which is unusual compared to last year. Some of that is due to spring games starting earlier, and some of it has to do with new pitching coach Mike Maddux’s preferences.

“It’s both. Mostly the schedule. Just not as many days when we had all the guys down here. Also he has a method to the madness he has and what he’s had success with in the past,” Mike Matheny said.

Spring games are starting a little earlier this season, a product of the MLB regular season beginning on a Thursday in order to increase the number of off days for teams in 2018.

Bringing the heat

Carlos Martinez, Jordan Hicks, Ryan Helsley and Conner Greene all took the mound to face hitters, showcasing some of the elite pitch speed within the organization.

Greene, Hicks and Helsley can all touch triple digits and Martinez’s elite velocity is well known to Cardinal fans.

Hicks threw alongside Friday’s starter Jack Flaherty, and his fastball could be heard popping the mitt from the surrounding fields. The Single-A prospect’s easy velocity drew whistles from veterans and rookies alike during his live BP session as he painted both sides of the plate with high-90s fastballs.

Martinez had a standoff with INF/OF Jose Martinez during his appearance, with the two bantering back and forth during their matchups.

Jose nearly had a shot down the line, but it curved foul at the last second; a fact he lamented later in the clubhouse.

“If I had gotten that one, oof,” he said with a smile. “He could strike me out, do whatever, it wouldn’t matter.”

Many also got a first look at Conner Greene, the 22-year-old acquired from Toronto in the Randal Grichuk trade. The long-armed righty whistled fastballs in to a group of hitters that included Jedd Gyorko, mixing in his breaking ball and a changeup that’s 20 miles per hour slower than his triple-digit heater.

Greene has battled command issues, but his pitch arsenal is something to be intrigued by. He was one of the Blue Jays’ top 10 prospects in 2016.

Communication is key

To open practice, the Cardinal outfielders gathered around with instructor Willie McGee to practice tracking balls while communicating as a unit.

McGee would toss balls into the air and a group of three outfielders, all within about 10 feet of each other, would track and call the ball to avoid miscues.

“You’re always talking to other outfielders about communication because that really is the most important part,” Harrison Bader said.

Bader, Tommy Pham, Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler worked as a group, and are growing to know each other’s tendencies. Open communication is vital not only when a ball is in the air, but before a pitch is even thrown.

“If one guy makes an adjustment, everyone adjusts. If someone takes a step or two in one direction the other guy needs to know and move with, because that could be the difference between a ball falling or not. Just a foot or two.”

Muscle Man

Tyler O’Neill was acquired from the Mariners in the trade that sent pitcher Marco Gonzales to the Northwest, and the burly Canadian has made an impression in camp.

The 22-year-old masher hit 31 homers last season in Triple-A, and has belted 101 in 455 games in the minors.

But his big bat isn’t what turned heads at the outset of camp.

O’Neill’s muscular frame is without equal in Jupiter. While many players are no stranger to the weight room, O’Neill’s bulging muscles are more akin to a strongman than a baseball player. Still, his strength hasn’t dampened his agility.

“There was a kid I played with in Milwaukee named Todd Dunn. He was on the cover of fitness magazine and he was put together like Tyler. Typically guys that have that kind of built sacrifice in their flexibility, but he moves well. He’s loose,” Mike Matheny said. “Certainly a whole lot of guys looking around the locker room saying, ‘Who is that? And how did he get like that?’ Probably some envious ones, I’d imagine.”

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