Notes: Awaiting Johnson's MRI results
Left-hander expected to be key cog in Cardinals bullpen
VIERA, Fla. -- The Cardinals still were awaiting word late Monday afternoon on the status of Tyler Johnson, who underwent an MRI after experiencing tightness and weakness in his left shoulder.
"Have not heard," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said following the Cardinals' 3-2 loss to the Nationals at Space Coast Stadium.
The left-hander is expected to be a key component in the Cardinals' bullpen this year after appearing in 55 games last season. Johnson, 26, had a 4.03 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 38 innings in 2007.
"That's not one of the deep spots on our club," La Russa said. "We're deeper in other areas, so left-handed relievers, this could affect us."
The only other lefty reliever on the Major League roster is Randy Flores, although one of three non-roster invitees -- Ron Flores, Jaime Garcia and Ron Villone -- could be asked to step in if Johnson is sidelined.
"[Villone] is throwing the ball well," La Russa said. "But we're not real deep there, so what Tyler does is important, and if we don't have him, it's a setback."
Looper makes spring debut: This time last spring, Braden Looper was making the change from reliever to starter. After he made his first start of the spring on Monday against Washington, Looper was more comfortable with the adjustment.
"I wouldn't say it's easier, but at least now I know what to expect," Looper said. "Last year I was feeling like I had to pitch lights out to earn it. And now I know what to expect and can just work on what I need to work on."
Looper went three innings against the Nationals, allowing one run on three hits. He struck out one and did not issue any walks.
"Good outing," La Russa said. "I thought he threw the ball well, pitched good, got three solid innings in, good day of work."
Looper also was encouraged with how he felt.
"For the first time out, I felt good, physically," Looper said. "I hope I can feel this good, physically, all year."
The right-hander said he threw approximately 80 percent fastballs. Like most veterans this time of year, the priority was on getting the work done -- not results.
"[Before the game], I talked to Jason [LaRue] -- this was the first time he's caught me," Looper said. "I shook him off a few times because I wanted to work on my four-seamers to right-handers. I'm not going to have Chris Carpenter's curveball or Adam [Wainwright's]. I've got to use my fastball to get ahead, and command and hit my spots with my four-seamer."
Unfamiliar role: In recent years, including last season, the Cardinals were widely picked to win the National League Central Division.
But after last year's 78-84 finish and the departures of Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and David Eckstein during the offseason, the Cardinals find themselves in the unfamiliar role of being pegged to finish no better than third by many preseason publications.
"I think whoever has to do the picking, they're just guessing based on how the clubs look on paper. You still have to play the season," La Russa said. "We were picked high last year, and we didn't win, so I mean it really shouldn't change anything that you do. You're always trying to maximize your chances to win, right?"
La Russa conceded there are some changes from last spring, when the Cardinals were coming off a World Series victory over the Tigers and picked by most observers to repeat.
"[It is] a little different atmosphere, but as long as you believe in yourself, if others don't -- and I don't blame anybody for not picking us as high -- but I think when we go out there, people will see we're still going to be competitive," the manager said.
As far as lessened expectations by people outside the organization, La Russa said he doesn't pay any attention to that.
"I would rather have the very best club that you can have," he said. "The pressure that comes with it, that's OK. I'll take that. We'll all take that. But the reality is we've got a little bit different expectation this year, but we don't pay any attention to that.
"The thing we want to do is we don't put any limits on ourselves. We'll go about it the right way and compete and see how we stack up."
Extra bases: Entering Monday's game, Albert Pujols had reached base in six of nine plate appearances and was batting .571 (4-for-7) with a pair of walks, two doubles and a home run. Pujols' 1.286 slugging percentage ranked second in the Grapefruit League behind Jason Lane (1.600) of the Yankees. ... The Cardinals are keeping a close watch on Pujols to make sure he doesn't reinjure the right elbow that bothered him last year. "He's backing off his throwing some," La Russa said. "If he tweaks it, [it could affect his swing]." ... Shortstop Brendan Ryan is tied with Pujols for the top batting average on the team. ... Unlike previous years, when the Cardinals were set at a number of positions, there's competition at several spots this spring. "[My] biggest concern, I think, is just trying to be fair to the guys who are trying to win innings and at-bats, and then have all of us evaluate them accurately," La Russa said. "That part is tough. This year guys are having to be more intense early."
Quotable: "He's a winning player. He's always been. [He] plays solid, gets a lot of big hits -- has a history of that." -- La Russa, on new third baseman Troy Glaus
Weather report: With temperatures in the low 80s and winds out of the southeast at 17 mph, it should be a warm, breezy day when the Cardinals and Orioles meet for a 12:05 p.m. CT game in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday.
On deck: Anthony Reyes will make his second start of the spring when St. Louis takes on Baltimore. The right-hander, who pitched three scoreless innings against the Mets on Thursday, will be followed by Hugo Castellanos, Randy Flores and Chris Perez.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.