When Jake Westbrook made his last start more than a month ago, the Cardinals were rolling. A win over the Cubs that day pushed them to 21-12, after which the right-hander hit the disabled list with an elbow injury.
Westbrook will return Friday night, when the Cardinals begin a three-game series at Marlins Park. Although Westbrook posted a 1.62 ERA before getting hurt, St. Louis did not take any steps back without him. Thursday's win over the Mets made them 22-11 over that span, and now they get the veteran back in their rotation.
Westbrook is prepared to throw 100 pitches against Miami after tossing seven innings in the last of his two Minor League rehab starts on Sunday with low Class A Peoria. He gave up one run on four hits and no walks, while striking out five over 76 pitches.
"I've always had elbow issues and I pitched through a lot of it," Westbrook said. "I think I'm always going to have something, some sort of feeling in there that's not normal. I feel really good right now. I feel really good with the two starts I've had. I feel really encouraged about getting up and down seven times on Sunday, and hopefully it continues to feel that way throughout the year."
This will be the first meeting of the season between the Cardinals and Marlins, who share a Spring Training complex.
The Marlins come in having won six of 11, their best stretch of the season, and will hand the ball to stellar rookie Jose Fernandez (3-3, 3.17 ERA). The 20-year-old has held the opposition to two runs or fewer in six of last eight starts. During that span, he is 3-1 with a 2.58 ERA, .200 opponents' average and 48 strikeouts in 45 1/3 innings.
On Saturday, he produced a one-run, six-inning appearance that became a footnote in the Marlins' 2-1, 20-inning victory over the Mets. That was Fernandez's fourth start against New York, and he has a 1.64 ERA in those outings.
"Every day, it doesn't matter who you're facing," Fernandez said. "You're in the big leagues. You get a chance to pitch in the big leagues, and it's pretty surreal, it's pretty amazing. I don't care who I pitch against; I just want to pitch."
Of all Marlins pitchers with at least six starts, Fernandez ranks first in ERA, and his 9.23 strikeouts per nine innings are the best of any Miami pitcher with at least two starts.
"I've really been trying to make pitches, make good pitches and make them in a good location; that's how it's been," Fernandez said. "The catchers, they're calling the right pitches in the right moments, and it's been pretty good.
"I'm really learning. Learning how to find myself and learning how to pitch in the big leagues. That's been really important."
Cardinals: Roster move coming
With Westbrook coming off the disabled list, the Cardinals will have to clear a spot on their 25-man roster.
Westbrook is taking Tyler Lyons' rotation spot. Lyons is one of three rookies in the team's rotation, along with Shelby Miller and another recent callup, Michael Wacha.
Lyons and Wacha each threw bullpen sessions to plan for a start on Sunday, though one of them will start for Triple-A Memphis. Manager Mike Matheny is expected to announce his plans on Friday.
Marlins: Morrison gets a break
First baseman Logan Morrison was not in the starting lineup Wednesday night against the Brewers, as manager Mike Redmond took the opportunity to get him some extra rest. Morrison had played five straight days since coming off the disabled list, including the end of his rehab assignment with Double-A Jacksonville.
Morrison is 4-for-9 with two walks and an RBI, and now gets two consecutive days of rest with Thursday's off-day.
• Right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, also fresh off the DL, played his third straight game Wednesday. The Marlins will evaluate how he feels Thursday before making any decisions about his playing time against the Cardinals.
Stanton went 1-for-4 with an RBI on Wednesday and is 3-for-12, including a home run, since his return.
• Juan Pierre extended his season-best hitting streak to nine games with a single in the ninth Wednesday.
• David Freese, who had his 20-game hitting streak come to a halt Wednesday, is expected to return to the Cardinals lineup Friday after getting a game off on Thursday.