After slow start, Peralta in serious groove
Newcomer has already equaled last year's shortstops with four home runs
MILWAUKEE -- Perhaps sparked by manager Mike Matheny's decision to remove him from the lineup on Saturday, Jhonny Peralta has since begun to prove himself the offensive upgrade the Cardinals sought during their shortstop search last offseason.
Peralta entered Wednesday coming off three consecutive multihit games. He homered in the past two, pushing his team-best total to four through 14 games. It took Peralta 44 at-bats to reach that mark, which equaled the number of homers hit by Cardinals shortstops in 2013.
It took that group 567 at-bats to get there.
"When people start watching Jhonny as he gets going and as we know that he will be for the long haul, they will realize what that does to our lineup," Matheny said. "It gives us another spot that you just can't take a breath with. I think that's pretty nice when you see that we do get what we consider the meat of our order, 3-4-5, and you watch six and seven walk up there with a real good chance of doing something."
The five games in which Peralta has hit safely have all ended as Cardinals wins.
Peralta's batting average is slowly creeping up after his 2-for-32 start. His career track record shows him to be a slow starter, as Peralta has hit 29 points below his career average of .267 in the first month of the season.
"I've felt good from the beginning. It's nothing different," Peralta said, when asked about his recent surge. "The only thing different is better luck. But I haven't changed anything."
Peralta noted there has been the added challenge of facing several unfamiliar pitchers as he begins his first season in the National League. Peralta played 11 years in the American League Central before joining the Cardinals on a four-year, $53 million deal in November.
Peralta also fought the early urge to try and do too much as he proved himself to a new organization and returned after a season in which he was scrutinized for his connection to Biogenesis.
"Sometimes it's a little hard," Peralta said. "You want to impress the fans in St. Louis, and when nothing is going well, people worry. But I know what kind of player I am."
Kelly to get MRI on tight left hamstring
MILWAUKEE -- After joining the team on its flight Wednesday night to play the Nationals, Joe Kelly will jet back to St. Louis on Thursday to have his tight left hamstring examined further with an MRI.
The Cardinals are hopeful the injury is no more than a strain, though even that is likely enough to sideline the right-hander for at least one start. Kelly, who said he has never before been injured, was walking around the clubhouse with a noticeable limp after the team's 5-1 loss to the Brewers.
"If I miss my next start, I do," Kelly said. "It's early in the year. It's best to be precautionary."
If the Cardinals need to cover a short-term absence, expect them to summon left-hander Tyler Lyons, who pitched for Triple-A Memphis on Wednesday. Lyons is already on the 40-man roster, he is lined up on Kelly's schedule and he has pitched well this month with Memphis. Lyons allowed one run on five hits and a walk in seven innings on Wednesday. He struck out four.
In his three season starts, Lyons is 2-0 with a 3.32 ERA. He made eight starts for St. Louis last season, posting a 5.56 ERA and a 1.305 WHIP.
The Cardinals also have the option to turn to right-hander Carlos Martinez, who was beaten out by Kelly for the final starting job this spring. Already dealing with some bullpen instability, though, the Cardinals are hesitant to pull Martinez out of his setup role unless they needed a long-term replacement for Kelly.
"I think we could [call on Martinez], but I'm not sure that's the way we're going to [go] right now," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "He's been extremely valuable to us and [has] done a nice job down there."
The Cardinals, who are in a stretch of 20 games in 20 days, will next need a fifth starter on Monday. If they want to fortify their bullpen in the meantime, the organization could put Kelly on the disabled list immediately, summon a reliever and then make another roster move when the fill-in starter is needed.
Seth Maness (27 pitches) and Keith Butler (26 pitches) each had strenuous outings on Wednesday.
Kelly's afternoon ended after just 45 pitches when he came up hobbling after trying to beat out a bunt with two out in the fifth. He immediately summoned head trainer Greg Hauck, who, along with Matheny, accompanied Kelly on a slow walk back to the dugout. Maness, who was summoned from the bullpen to take over in a game the Cardinals trailed 1-0, allowed three Milwaukee runs in the fifth.
"I definitely tweaked it, and it's something I felt instantly," Kelly said. "I called the trainer over and let him know and came out of the game. I can walk just with a little limp. We'll see what happens."
Matheny 'surprised' he hasn't used challenge
MILWAUKEE -- Fourteen games into the season, manager Mike Matheny admitted to being "extremely surprised" that he has yet to deploy a challenge in this new era of expanded instant replay across Major League Baseball.
Entering Wednesday, 66 manager challenges had been called through the first two-plus weeks of the season. Only Matheny and Orioles manager Buck Showalter have yet to use their first.
Just because Matheny has not asked for video review, though, does not mean the Cardinals have not actively been going through the exercise of reviewing close plays. It happened again during Tuesday's 6-1 win over the Brewers, when Allen Craig was picked off at second base to end the third inning.
Knowing he had to begin toward the umpire within 10 seconds to keep the Brewers from leaving the field, Matheny slowly walked to second-base umpire Jeff Kellogg while his video coordinator reviewed the play inside the clubhouse. Once it was determined that the evidence was likely not conclusive enough to overturn the call, a signal was relayed to Matheny to keep the challenge in his pocket.
"If it was blatant and it was clear and convincing, I would have used it up," Matheny said. "I was going out and giving ourselves a little bit of time without completely trying to stall the whole game. I'm conscious of that. I appreciate the pace of game. More importantly is the pace of our team. I hate slowing the rhythm of the game down for our players.
"I'm not going to do it just to do it, but if there is a chance we think something is missed, we're going to go out there. But fortunately, things have worked well with the communication in the dugout. We got the information to turn around and leave."
Matheny continues to monitor the use of replay elsewhere and said that has helped he and his staff "get a better feel for things that we can and can't" challenge with a high success rate.
Garcia, Motte continue to make progress
MILWAUKEE -- Down at the Cardinals' spring complex in Jupiter, Fla., pitchers Jason Motte and Jaime Garcia continue to make progress in their individual throwing programs.
Garcia advanced to facing hitters in a live batting practice session this week, and according to manager Mike Matheny, he is scheduled to appear in an extended spring game later this week. Garcia's progress was earlier delayed by bursitis in his surgically repaired left shoulder.
Motte is further along in his rehab work and is poised for a new test this week. After throwing almost 20 pitches in an extended spring game Monday, he will appear in another on Thursday, and then again on Saturday. That will mark the first time he will face hitters with just one day off in between outings.
"We'll see how I recover from that," Motte said Wednesday. "The last game was a step up from the previous time as far as velocity. We're getting closer each time out."
Motte said he and the Cardinals have not yet settled on a start date for a rehab assignment, which would allow Motte to faced increased competition at higher Minor League levels. The catch is that there is a 30-day limit for a pitcher's rehab assignment, so starting that countdown too early can be counterproductive.
Since gauging Motte's progress during Spring Training, the Cardinals have anticipated a May return for the right-handed reliever. That timeframe has not changed.
"It's one of those things where we're trying to get everything we can done before starting that clock," Motte said.
• Manager Mike Matheny admitted he is "kind of stuck" growing out facial hair until the Cardinals' current winning streak -- which sat at four games entering Wednesday -- comes to an end. Why the correlation? Matheny said someone noticed he hadn't shaved on Saturday, when the offense broke out in a 10-4 win over the Cubs. He has resisted picking up a razor since.
"I'm not a superstitious guy, but I'm not going to get in the way of the guys that are," Matheny said. "I honor the fact that this stuff is in our game. And my wife is not on the road, so I can get away with it."
• Right-hander Zack Petrick, the organization's 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, improved to 2-0 with Double-A Springfield after a terrific start on Tuesday. Petrick allowed one run on five hits and a walk in eight innings. He struck out four.
• Marco Gonzales, the team's first pick in last summer's First-Year Player Draft, made his second start for High-A Palm Beach on Tuesday, allowing five runs (three earned) on nine hits in 6 2/3 innings. Gonzales struck out five and walked three.
• Tim Cooney moved to 3-0 by helping lead Triple-A Memphis to an 8-4 win over Nashville on Tuesday. Cooney gave up three runs on seven hits in 5 1/3 innings. He was supported by outfielder Joey Butler, who pushed his season average to .500 with his fourth three-hit game in his past six starts. First baseman Xavier Scruggs had two hits drove in three runs.
• The Cardinals are scheduled to face the following pitchers, in order, during their upcoming series against the Nationals: Taylor Jordan (0-1, 4.76 ERA), Gio Gonzalez (2-1, 3.50 ERA), Jordan Zimmermann (1-0, 5.27 ERA) and Stephen Strasburg (1-2, 6.00 ERA)
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.