Look for Memphis Redbirds reliever David Aardsma and you’ll probably find him above Hank Aaron and next to Pedro Feliciano.
The No. 1 major leaguer of all time — when it comes to alphabetical listing — has spent the last three years with three different organizations, all with the sidewinding lefty Feliciano by his side.
The two were neighbors while on rehab assignment in 2012 with the Yankees. They both pitched out of the bullpen last season for the Mets. And now both Aardsma and Feliciano, both with more than 300 major league innings of experience each, have become steady influences for the Class AAA Redbirds, on the field and off.
“It’s like having a couple more coaches down there in the bullpen,” pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd said. “They’ll put their arm around the younger kids down there and talk about game situations, how to warm up, stuff like that. I can’t be down there during the game to give them this info. Those guys are priceless to have.”
The two oldest Redbirds spend most of the workday sitting down, but when they stand, it’s to fight for another chance to get back up. To the big leagues, that is.
“I’ve been trying to focus on making my pitches and obviously make it back to the big leagues, “ Aardsma said. “Trying to get my motion back to where it was when I was at the peak of my career. Trying to get a little better angle on the ball. Trying to see if there is any more juice in there. I think there is.”
Pacific Coast League hitters think so, too. The 32-year-old righty, back in the minors after pitching to a 4.31 ERA in 43 games for the New York Mets in 2013, has been the dominant closer he was in the big leagues before injuries stalled his career.
Aardsma averaged 35 saves per year with the Mariners from 2009-2010 before he needed surgery to repair a micro-fracture of his hip labrum. While on a rehab assignment for that, he learned he needed Tommy John surgery. Three years later he’s still working on regaining his form, to excellent results. He has allowed just three runs in 27 innings for Memphis, good for an 0.98 ERA and 11 saves.
“Last year I had a good amount of success even though my ERA wasn’t the prettiest,” Aardsma said. “You take two appearances away from last year and I have a 2.00 ERA. I was perfect with inherited runners, great with runners on base. All the numbers you want as a reliever. I’ve been pitching well for two years now. It’s all about getting a chance.”
The Cardinals signed Aardsma (in March) and Feliciano (May) to serve as so-we-don’t-have-to-scramble insurance for the major league bullpen. And while the Cardinals’ starters have guided the team’s fortunes of late, the bullpen has been pedestrian.
Carlos Martinez has had troubles and lost the eighth-inning job. Injuries have landed Tyler Lyons and Kevin Siegrist on the disabled list. And Trevor Rosenthal’s erratic outings continue to stem from control troubles.
Overall, the bullpen sits in the middle of the National League rankings in most major statistical categories, except for losses, which at 11 are the fifth-most in the Senior Circuit.
Waiting to be called upon are four Memphis pitchers with major league experience: recently rehabbed John Gast, Jorge Rondon, and Aardsma and Feliciano, who outpace the other two by years of service time.
Feliciano threw well in his first four outings before a rough appearance Sunday ballooned his ERA. Aardsma has been consistently dominant since opening day.
No stranger to success, Aardsma set out three weeks ago to reevaluate whether or not he was making the progress he thought he was.
“I felt like I was pitching really well, I felt like I should have had a chance in the big leagues by now,” he said. “If I’m doing everything right, why aren’t we getting the results of getting to the big leagues?”
What he found on video were “glaring” issues with his delivery, mostly stemming from inefficiencies in his shoulder motion. The double-whammy of hip and shoulder injuries years ago started a snowball effect that began with an over-eagerness to return, and resulted in decreased velocity thanks to a dependency on bad throwing habits.
“I had been fighting it for two years,” Aardsma said. “Now I needed to reteach myself.”
The lessons haven’t slowed down his effectiveness. Quite the opposite. Aardsma has been virtually untouchable for a month. He hasn’t surrendered a run in any of his last 10 appearances.
“Mentally he’s a tough cookie out there,” Eversgerd said. “He knows how to pitch at the back end of a game. He’s had a lot of success doing it.”
The only person maybe with more success back there, is Feliciano. His career ERA of 3.33 sinks below Aardsma’s by almost a run. But Feliciano served as a lefty-only specialist for most of his career, and at 37, is five years older than Aardsma.
Both are there if they’re needed, like they’ve been needed together before.
“We’re two for two together,” Aardsma said. “The year is still just half over. Maybe we’ll get another chance.”