JUPITER, Fla. • Having made a career out of raw velocity and a gunslinger's itchiness to fire fastballs, new Cardinals starter Brad Penny said it wasn't pitching coach Dave Duncan who encouraged him to try a sinker this spring.
Duncan didn't have to.
One look at what the other Cardinals starters throw and Penny could spot the trend.
"A lot of the other guys, that's what they throw," Penny said. "I've always been a four-seam-guy. … But if I get a guy to a 1-0 (count) and he's sitting four-seamer, it will help to have something with a little movement on it. We'll see if I can get this pitch there."
Penny, a righthander, made his Cardinals debut Friday with an arduous and at times uneven two innings against the New York Mets at Roger Dean Stadium.
The 7-3 loss to the Mets not only included the spring debuts for Cardinals All-Stars Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, but also the club's two free-agent prizes of the offseason. Outfielder Matt Holliday made his first start of the exhibition season, and the $120 million man came in swinging, going one for one and fighting his way back in the count to claim the first of two walks.
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Signed a month earlier than Holliday to a one-year, $7.5 million deal, Penny allowed three runs on six hits and needed 45 pitches to collect six outs.
Individual pitches were as important as the cumulative performance.
"The splitty (split-finger fastball) I was leaving up and they were getting hits off it," Penny said. "It's usually the last pitch that comes around for me. … I worked on some stuff that I normally (wouldn't). Like I threw more sinkers in the first inning than I have probably in a game in my career."
Duncan is a devotee of the two-seam fastball, encouraging his pitchers to find a fastball that has late movement, be it down (sinker) or lateral (cutter). For many pitchers, that means embracing a sinking fastball and learning to use their four-seam fastball less. In recent years, Anthony Reyes has struggled to adopt the approach, just as Joel Piñeiro ascended because of it.
The Cardinals and Penny aren't looking to radically alter his identity. During a three-year stretch in the past decade, he led the majors in pitches thrown at 95 miles per hour or faster. (He touched 93 mph on Friday.) What Penny and Duncan seek is a secondary fastball the righthander can use to complement the heat.
"He's got to throw it to get a feel for it," Duncan said. "He's got to throw it enough that he knows what it's going to do, so he knows where to throw it to and so he can execute the pitch."
To underscore the benefit of the pitch, Duncan turned to the 10 balls the Mets put in play against Penny.
"Six ground balls, four fly balls, and all the fly balls were hits," Duncan said. "Two of the six ground balls were hits. So the percentages were in his favor if he gets the ball on the ground, which he will do with that pitch."
Penny said he threw as many as 15 sinkers during the two-inning appearances — about as many as he would throw in a normal month in previous seasons, with three or four a game. This is the first spring since 2006 that he has felt entirely healthy; in 2008 every throw hurt and in 2009 he was put on a program to strengthen his shoulder.
Being healthy allows for experimentation.
Penny got to a two-strike count on seven of the 11 hitters he faced Friday, including all four in the second inning. Four of those seven hitters got two-strike hits, mostly on his split-finger offspeed pitch. Duncan said he was throwing the pitch too hard and might need to shift his grip. Penny cited his mechanics. The hits were a mix of bloops and three hard-struck base hits.
"Two-strike hits are horrible, but that's from trying to work on the split-finger pitch," Penny said. "I'm going to keep throwing it in spring because in the regular season ... after the first couple of them hang, I'm not going to keep throwing it."
The same goes for the sinker.
A year ago, Piñeiro made his first start of spring training and threw nothing but his new pitch, a one-seam sinker that fueled a career year. Penny doesn't need the sinker to be his only pitch or even a put-away pitch. Penny got his first swing-and-miss in the second inning, on his 41st pitch. He escaped the inning and ended his day on a double play grounder.
That grounder came on a curve ball.
Getting a similar result will develop his faith in the sinker.
"The next step, he needs results," Duncan said.