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JUPITER, Fla. • With the Cardinals’ search for a fifth starter narrowing and innings starting to vanish in Grapefruit League games, righthander John Gant went to the back fields for the team called a “reboot” of his schedule. Gant, one of four pitchers vying for the opening in the rotation and one of two who have stated the best case, had a simple approach to the wrinkle.

“Just out there getting those competition reps,” Gant said.

Gant and lefty Brett Cecil handled the three innings of a squad game against minor-league hitters with minor-league fielders at their back. Gant sped through two innings of work with little trouble. Adolis Garcia laced a liner to the second baseman that ended Gant’s first inning, and the next three batters he faced failed to get the ball out of the infield.

The two-inning appearance was meant to beef-up Gant’s pitch count and get him back on the arm-strengthening track after being marooned Tuesday at Disney.

The Cardinals had Miles Mikolas start that game and pitch into the sixth inning, and then put a priority on Alex Reyes appearing in relief that afternoon. Gant, who was scheduled to throw as many as three innings, was left with one. He had to get his pitches somewhere to be ready to start if the Cardinals select him as their No. 5 starter.

“Ready,” he affirmed.

The Cardinals continue to prepare four pitchers for that opening in the rotation: Gant, rookie Dakota Hudson, righthander Daniel Ponce de Leon, and lefty Austin Gomber. The Cardinals have narrowed their focus to a duel between Gant, who is out of options, and Hudson, who has earned a spot somewhere on the pitching staff.

To get a read on the rotation race, look at the assignments. Hudson started Wednesday against Miami. Gant went to the back fields. Movement around them on the pitching staff could yet determine who leaves Florida as the fifth starter – if Hudson is needed in the bullpen should Alex Reyes not win a spot, or if Gant slides into a long relief role that frees up Reyes for a later relief role, for example. Even as the assignments offer clues on what the Cardinals want to see – Hudson against lineups populated now with big-leaguers and better timing – all four pitchers will continue to get a starter’s workload.

If two head to Class AAA Memphis, those two pitchers will be the starters atop the Redbirds rotation and, along with Jacob Woodford, could be the first called upon for a spot start.

The goal will be to have them ready to throw 100 pitches by the time they leave spring training, and that could be with St. Louis or with Memphis. And that decision could be the Cardinals’ second-to-last of spring. The last being the bullpen choice.

“Close to being able to,” Shildt said of handling 100 pitches. “They will be able to do it. So the first time out they’ll be able to. I don’t think we need to before they actually have to. There is always a progression. Guys go from 60 to 75 pitches. Guy gets to 80 (by end of camp) he can get to 95, 100. … I think at some point the (contest) will narrow down. Either way, all four guys need to be built up.

“The competition continues.”

In previous springs, the derby for the fifth spot in the rotation has been optional because the schedule permitted the Cardinals to start the year with a four-man rotation. There have been years when the Cardinals have had one of the starters remain in Florida for an extended-spring start before joining the active roster. At least once the fifth starter began the year on the injured list before being needed in the majors. By starting the year in Milwaukee with a four-game series, the Cardinals have the rarity: Five consecutive games to open a season.

Miller Park doesn’t have a roof, so there’s no need for a buffer day after opening day on March 28. They know they’re going to play, even in Wisconsin. There is need for a buffer day in Pittsburgh after its home opener vs. the Cardinals on April 1.

That day the Cardinals will need a fifth starter.

Hudson has been the most impressive of the four contenders for Carlos Martinez’s spot in the rotation. While Gomber and Ponce de Leon have searched for their command in early appearances, Gant has been reliably Gant and Hudson has shown the power of his sinker. Pitching coach Mike Maddux has been candid about wanting to see Hudson in the role that he had when winning last year’s Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year award and the Texas League pitcher of the year award the year before that. The Cardinals see Hudson ultimately as a starter, and how they get him there, how ready he is to stay there is part of the question.

Gant has stressed his need to reduce the walks, and he found his way through a tricky New York Yankees lineup in one of his starts of spring. He was in command of his back-field outing Thursday, and he was efficient in that second inning. He got Evan Mendoza to sky a popup into the wind that landed in the shortstop’s glove. Gant struck out slugger Luken Baker on what appeared to be a biting, signature changeup after testing him with a fastball. Chase Pinder skipped a grounder to the first baseman, and Gant’s last act of his reset appearance was to cover first base for the final out of the inning.

Ponce de Leon will start Friday night’s split-squad game in West Palm Beach, Fla. Gomber’s weekend assignment has not yet be revealed. Gant could be in the mix to pitch as soon as Monday, if needed, and Hudson is also due to pitch that day. Any of them could find their pitch counts on the back fields. Roles are usually found on the main field.

Gant has a reliably Gant view of his chances.

“All I know for sure: I’m going to pitch until they tell me to stop pitching,” Gant said. “That’s all I can figure.”

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Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

dgoold@post-dispatch.com

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