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After 673-day quest, Oviedo's first Cardinals' win brings tears of relief, triumph

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St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Johan Oviedo delivers against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning of the first baseball game of a doubleheader, Saturday, June 4, 2022, in Chicago.

MILWAUKEE — The ink was not dry on Wednesday’s box score with his first major-league win and Johan Oviedo was already soaked in the Cardinals’ clubhouse.

In a special tradition that has become a twice weekly habit, the Cardinals shower a player after a significant career first, and they do so with whatever they can get their hands on. Players have had applesauce leaking from an ear, yogurt caught in their hair. Zack Thompson tasted ramen noodles and – was that shaving cream? Oviedo got doused with chocolate sauce and yogurt. Adam Wainwright, whose inning Oviedo saved, gripped two beer cans, one to pour down Oviedo’s shirt and the other to balance on the crown of Oviedo’s head so it leaked out ever so slowly, chilling the scalp as it flowed down.

All of liquids, sugary to bubbly, mixed with Oviedo’s tears.

So many tears.

“A lot,” he said.

“The real, raw emotion,” Wainwright said. “Stuff you can’t fake.”

In his 25th appearance, 673 days after his Cardinals debut, Oviedo claimed the first major-league win of his career.

Emerging on this road trip as the answer to the Cardinals’ middle-inning riddle, Oviedo pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings to hold the Brewers at a one-run lead and steal time for the Cardinals to rally. Nolan Arenado did with a two-run homer that catapulted the Cardinals to a 5-4 victory against Milwaukee and back into first place. Genesis Cabrera cemented the win with two scoreless innings of relief and a groundout from former MVP Christian Yelich to end the game with the tying run at second. In two wins this week at American Family Field, the Cardinals’ bullpen has thrown 10 1/3 scoreless innings and allowed one hit.

Cabrera’s first save of the season assured Oviedo’s first win of a career that just a year ago felt stalled, stuck, or worse, sliding in reverse.

“I can’t really express how I feel right now,” Oviedo said after more than a year of having to articulate the opposite feeling. “I’m really happy the team trusts me in that situation. I just want to give them what they need in that moment.”

Oviedo entered the game with two runners left on base by Wainwright and one out to get in a ballgame the Cardinals trailed, 4-3. Twice already on the road trip, the Cardinals’ bullpen botched such a situation and made it so rallies stirred up drama but fell shy of wins. After one fissure at Fenway Park, manager Oliver Marmol named Oviedo as the right-hander who would get the next chance in the role of chase reliever. He was left, and the time was right.

In his first audition, Oviedo pitched 1 2/3 scoreless Monday against Milwaukee, stalling the Brewers in a 2-0 game the Cardinals ultimately lost. That outing built on his 2 1/3 scoreless innings five days early against Pittsburgh. And what the Cardinals saw on the mound echoed what they saw off of it – a young pitcher who had reclaimed his confidence through a steadier routine, a calmer poise on the mound, and trust in his pitches replacing tentativeness.

“The last couple of weeks for him have been career-changing, life-changing moments,” Wainwright said. “I think he’s really flipped a switch on a lot of different things to help him be successful out there. Just keep going. That’s what I told him: ‘Don’t get comfortable. Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re doing great things.’”

Oviedo’s previous stints in the majors were all rushed, all accelerated to meet the team’s immediate need not measured to aid the pitcher’s ultimate development. The Cardinals first called on the 24-year-old right-hander under duress during the 2020 short-season spring, needing help from all corners of the organization to cover innings and survive doubleheaders. He returned to the majors a year ago to help the Cardinals patch a threadbare rotation that would ultimately cost them a run at the division title. Oviedo made 13 starts in 2021, including five in in June, and he lost all five of his decisions.

He woke up Wednesday 0-9 in the majors. Nineteen starts, one shy of the big-league record, into his major-league career and zero wins. Even seven shutout innings against Miami didn’t catch a win.

The long, challenging route Oviedo took from Cuba to the majors had veered into a detour, dropping him into a place lower than any minor league.

Doubt.

“Last year I was worried too much, not trusting in what I was doing out there,” Oviedo said. “I tried to do more than I can control, thinking about doing well, trying to throw seven shutout innings so I don’t go back down, stuff like that. This year I try to have a clean mind and just enjoy the game.”

During spring training, the Cardinals noticed that the strapping, power-armed right-hander who had made such an impression during camp in 2020 was not the same presence on the mound. Once engaged in quizzing veterans or volunteering to even help infield drills, he remained on the periphery. He pitched with similar hesitance. He pitched to avoid bats, not overpower them. His difficulty finding the strike zone had been aggravated by his concern about being hit in the strike zone.

Most telling: When the Cardinals opened the competition for at least one spot in the rotation and several openings in the bullpen, his name was not mentioned.

He was on the back fields, toiling.

“I think that’s the key sometimes,” Marmol said. “You can have that confidence and this league is quick to humble you, and then what do you do when you lose it, how do you regain it? For the most part, people get here with confidence because they’re good enough to get here. And then it punches you in the face. Then what? And some people regroup and say screw it, and keep going. Some people are taken aback by it and it takes them awhile to gain that.”

Oviedo began the year at Class AAA Memphis, and there had a 5.58 ERA in 10 starts, allowing 14 homers in 50 innings. Again, need brought him to the majors, and in his first appearance, a start, he allowed eight hits, three runs, three walks, and took a loss. The Cardinals could calculate the stuff Oviedo had at his fingertips. What they needed him to reclaim was the right stuff to pitch with bravado again.

“Any time you pitch that much and don’t win, it creeps in there,” Marmol said. “It’s natural. It’s human nature. How do we pitch with confidence before we have success? That would be my challenge. Like, if you’re going to wait to have success to have confidence, you may be waiting awhile. So start taking the mound as if you’ve already been a guy, been a dude.”

That challenge to Oviedo came at the same time as a challenge from the bullpen.

Marmol saw a merger of what the team needed with what Oviedo did.

Cast as a starter, future or present, so often by the Cardinals, the team had become intrigued by what the right-hander could do in shorter assignments. Would that give him an infusion of confidence because he wasn’t fretting about efficiency or later innings? They had the glaring need for a right-hander to bridge deficits that could be late overcome. Would higher-leverage assignments give Oviedo that jolt of confidence from the trust it showed in him?

In the fifth inning, two misplaced two-strike pitches put Wainwright in trouble and allowed the Brewers to overtake the Cardinals for a 4-3 lead. An inning after drilling a home run off Wainwright, designated hitter Andrew McCutchen laced a ground-rule double that put the Brewers ahead. Wainwright’s 101st and last pitch hopped over the wall, leaving two runners in scoring position for the Brewers. Hunter Renfroe stepped toward the plate.

Oviedo came in from the bullpen.

He took a deep breath to slow his body clock.

“Instead of using all of these emotions, I try to use it right now I’m going to try to put every part of energy I have into my next pitch, next pitch," said Oviedo, the first Cuban-born pitcher to win a game for the Cardinals since 1997. "Keep trusting that.”

Oviedo landed a slider for a strike to get ahead on Renfroe. He came back with a slider Renfroe ignored. Oviedo then challenged him with a 96-mph fastball to get a groundout that ended the inning. Oviedo’s success starts with assertive command of his fastball so that he can best exploit his best pitch, the slider. He struck out batters in the sixth on a slider and a curveball, and in the seventh, Oviedo ended his evening with a strikeout on a fastball.

“I think the last couple of times out, even before he had success, you’re seeing a kid who is confident, who is just going about it different,” Marmol said. “Sometimes you gain confidence after having success. With Ovi, we were seeing a little bit of confidence before the last three outings. To see what he did tonight – we build off of that, we’ve got a nice arm.”

The tears started flowing before the beers did as Oviedo entered the clubhouse after the game. He thought of his mother and father back in Cuba at the house where, during the early days of the pandemic, he structured a frame with a blanket on the roof so he could continue pitching. He mentioned his parents three times to reporters after the game, once hoping that they were able to see what he did.

And then, finally, saying he was so eager to tell them.

“I can’t wait to call my family,” Oviedo said, new tears pooling – or maybe recent tears clinging – to his eyelids.

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