Cardinals rookie Shelby Miller looked at the 13-day hiatus assigned between his starts as an opportunity to clear his head and control his fastball.
The midsummer break was the mental refresh button he needed, he said, but at no point during his side sessions did he feel in command of that misbehaving fastball.
That didn’t happen until he needed it.
Miller fired six shutout innings against the Phidelphia Phillies and carried the Cardinals aboard his fastball to a 4-1 victory Tuesday night at Busch Stadium. A sellout crowd saw the Cardinals (60-37) move to 23 games over .500 for the first time since late in the 2009 season, and saw Miller reassert the fastball that powered his early-season rise in the rotation. Miller appeared both refreshed and refocused as he defied the Phillies with a fastball that consistently sizzled in the mid-90s and, more important, he could throw for strikes.
“God wanted me to throw the fastball tonight,” Miller said. “I haven’t had it before this start. Fastball wasn’t where I needed it to be. … I learned lately that you can’t live off your fastball especially when you’re not throwing it for strikes. I hadn’t been throwing strikes with much of anything.”
Before a cramp in his calf muscle forced him from the game, Miller threw 85 pitches; only 23 of them were balls. He needed 58 pitches to get through four innings less than a month after throwing 51 pitches in the second inning alone against Oakland.
And even then all he got was two outs.
Miller (10-6) became the second Cardinals pitcher 22 or younger to win 10 games for the club in its first 100 games of a season. Paul Dean, Dizzy’s younger brother, had done it twice before, in 1934 and 1935.
Edward Mujica closed the win for his 29th save despite allowing two baserunners and facing the tying run with one out. Allen Craig contributed two RBIs and was one of three Cardinals with two hits in the game. Craig took over the National League lead with 79 RBIs, and he inched closer to the league lead for batting average.
Teammate Yadier Molina holds the slim edge, .3353 to Craig’s .3352.
“I’m a competitive person,” Craig said. “It’s not something where I’m looking for the personal accolades. I just try to do my job. If I’m doing that, that’s what really matters to me.”
While Craig was in New York as one of six Cardinals All-Stars, the club used the break to revise the rotation and steal some extra days for Miller. The idea was to preserve innings for later in the season and give him a chance to refine his approach, his mechanics, and, most of all, his fastball. Described by opponents earlier this season as deceptive, with more giddyup than the velocity implied, the fastball had started to stray. He was prone to falling behind in counts and his walk rate spiked.
He allowed five runs in 1 2/3 innings at Oakland and in his six previous starts he had allowed 18 runs and 43 baserunners in 29 1/3 innings. He had 12 walks in that stretch – as many as he had in his previous 57 innings.
“It all comes down to establishing the strike zone with his fastball, which he did earliy in the season,” manager Mike Matheny said. “It really wasn’t there in his last few starts.”
It was Tuesday.
Miller was able to locate his fastball for strike 1 and often did so low in the zone. Rest made it wicked again. Through the fastball, all things were possible. Miller was efficient with five outs on his first 25 pitches and he showed a better feel for his offspeed pitches. The time between starts had allowed him to work on a changeup that he called “not a very developed pitch for me.” He would throw it repeatedly in the bullpen sessions until finally getting a feel for it. Molina called for it often Tuesday. It worked some of the time.
He had six strikeouts, and the final three finished with three different pitches. He caught Darin Ruf looking at a curveball for the first out of the fifth inning. Carlos Ruiz missed a 94 mph fastball for the final out of the inning. To start the sixth inning, Miller froze pinch-hitter Laynce Nix for a called strike 3 with that nascent changeup.
“You can’t try to make something happen if you don’t have your secondary pitches,” Matheny said. “He established his fastball the first time through, and that opens up a lot of doors for what he can do.”
Said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel: “He’s got a big fastball.”
Phillies starter Jonathan Pettibone (5-4) was selected out of high school in the third round of the 2008 draft, and he’s brought some steadiness to the Phillies’ rotation. The rookie hadn’t lost since June 15 and he allowed three or fewer runs in six consecutive starts. The Cardinals got their three early. Craig delivered a 1-0 lead with an RBI groundout in the first, and he sparked the two-run rally in the fourth with a leadoff double off Pettibone. In the seventh, Craig connected for an RBI single off reliever Justin De Fratus to answer the run the Phillies got off Cardinals reliever Seth Maness.
Quietly gathering currency for an MVP campaign, Craig improved his average to .490 (47 for 96) with runners in scoring position. Craig has 40 RBIs in his past 40 games.
For the second time this season Miller had a start abbreviated by cramping related to dehydration. Matheny and Miller said it was because he got off his fluid-intake routine during the break. He’ll be back on regular schedule now – when it comes to hydrating and starting. The 13-day break wasn’t just to reset him for Tuesday, it was to set him up for September and beyond.
The short-term gain resulted from a long-term plan.
“For the long haul,” Matheny said. “It’s more the big picture here and long term what we need (to do) to push him for the long season.”