LOS ANGELES • His second dose of October baseball has become a trying teaching moment for rookie Shelby Miller. In a month of conflicting emotions, Miller has learned that regular-season success and the praise that accompanies it lose clout once the realities of short series arrive.
To be September’s fifth starter is to become October’s fifth wheel.
This seems cold when discussing a talent who turned 23 while sitting in the bullpen for Game 1 of the National League championship series.
Miller’s birthday present Friday night was to briefly warm up behind starter Joe Kelly.
Lance Lynn, selected to start over Miller in Tuesday’s Game 4 at Dodger Stadium, worked two innings in relief Friday and earned the decision in the Redbirds’ epic 13-inning, 3-2 win.
Miller officially learned Saturday that he would remain in long relief for the entire series. He's in the awkward predicament of wanting to pitch but knowing that being summoned probably means very bad things have happened to the starting pitcher. It seems a strange fate for a talent who led all National League rookies with 15 wins and compiled a 1.75 ERA in 16 home starts. It is less strange, however, within an organization that leaned toward Lynn and fellow rookie Michael Wacha after parsing second-half numbers with special emphasis on September.
“Based on what I did during the year, coming into the postseason and based on what I’ve done so far … that’s not how I pictured the postseason,” Miller said following Sunday’s brief workout at Dodger Stadium. “I pictured myself being a starter and helping the team that way. But things are different. It’s not my job to say when I can pitch and when I can’t. I have to respect the decision. I respect all these guys.”
Miller realizes that stridently speaking out would reflect poorly on his teammates and, by extension, himself.
He rattles off the names of the Cardinals’ four-man turn – Adam Wainwright, Kelly, Wacha and Lynn – and praises each.
The Cardinals are also on a roll having escaped the Pirates series before holding the Dodgers to two runs in 22 innings covering two games.
This is hardly a time to fire a shot. However, Miller isn’t trying to bluff anyone about his level of disappointment.
“It’s almost like there’s no room for me,” he said. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to go out there and do well. I’d like to go out there and start a couple games. But that’s not my role right now.”
Manager Mike Matheny understands the potential for disappointment but hopes the greater good is more persuasive.
“We have a 25-man postseason roster. And within that roster there are a number of roles that look different now than during the season,” Matheny pointed out. “Things can change from series to series or even within a single series. But when we make these decisions, we’re thinking about what gives us the best chance to win.”
This is sensitive stuff. This was Miller’s first full major-league season and he projects as part of the Cardinals’ pitching core long after this month. The organization would do well to make sure a young talent does not see this as a vote of no confidence.
Word Miller wouldn’t start against the Pirates came as only a mild surprise. Miller lost all three appearances against the Pirates during the season as his preference for high fastballs played to the Pirates’ strengths. When Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist informed Miller the rotation could be re-evaluated before the second round, Miller allowed himself to believe a combination of his success against the Dodgers and at Busch Stadium would lead to a start in Game 2.
Lilliquist said Sunday that Lynn showed impressive “second-pitch command” during his Game 3 loss against the Pirates. Lynn also finished September with a rush of four quality starts.
Miller was 3-0 in September. However, peripheral numbers trumped his win-loss record. Miller averaged 1.15 walks for every strikeout. He struck out only 15 of 125 batters faced, a significant drop from August, when he struck out 30 of 127. The Cardinals figure if Miller’s strikeout capacity is diminished his secondary pitches become exposed. Lynn projected more of a power look in his last four September starts, striking out 30 in 24 2/3 innings.
Miller knows his late numbers may have conspired against him. But he also insists he is healthy and that there shouldn’t be concern about his career-most 174 1/3 innings, including the one-inning cameo against Pittsburgh.
The Cardinals, including general manager John Mozeliak, insist Miller’s absence from the postseason rotation is driven more by match-ups than his innings count. Even if the match-up explanation fits, the club’s stated desire to manage Miller’s workload this summer makes the innings theory an easy leap.
There is room for Miller on this staff. But it is a tight space with seemingly little space for high-leverage situations. The virtual quarantine of deposed closer Edward Mujica creates the look of a 10-man staff.
Right now the Cardinals’ decision-making regarding its pitching is unassailable. They manipulated Wacha’s innings at Triple-A Memphis to make him a late-season option for the parent club. When the entire First World screamed for Mozeliak to pursue a veteran starter at the non-waiver trade deadline, Mo believed in what he had. Mujica’s September demotion led to greater opportunity for rookies Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and Carlos Martinez. Behind Wacha the trio proved overwhelming in Saturday’s 1-0 thriller.
“My job right now is to come into the game if the starting pitcher doesn’t do good,” Miller summarized. “Obviously, I’m not going to wish that on anybody. But whenever the opportunity presents itself I’ve got to take advantage of it.”
The Cardinals operate from a position of tremendous pitching leverage. They demonstrated this in Saturday’s seventh and eighth innings when spending their only two lefty relievers, Randy Choate and Siegrist, against consecutive lefthanded hitters. The moves left Martinez to face a third lefthanded bat, Dodgers cleanup hitter and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Martinez responded by overpowering the veteran.
The Cardinals similarly have four starting slots for five qualified arms. Even in the best of times it is simple, sloppy math that’s no fun for a young pitcher to perform.