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Woodford, Naughton are options if struggling Hicks goes back to Cardinals' bullpen

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Cardinals, Blue Jays play at Busch

Cardinals pitcher Jordan Hicks keeps a Toronto Blue Jays runner close to first base during the first inning on Tuesday, May 24, 2022 at Busch Stadium. 

It has become clear that this Jordan Hicks thing—where he starts instead of relieves—isn’t working. The pitch count is OK. He doesn’t have much trouble getting close to 80. The problem is that about half of them are balls and there isn't much rhythm to his game. 

Hicks, presumably healthy after barely having pitched the past three seasons, passed a career-five in three official innings Tuesday night in a 8-1 shellacking here by the Toronto Blue Jays. In seven starts by their former closer, the Cardinals have won just two. Hicks hasn’t made it past the fifth in any of them, walking 18 in 24 2/3 innings as a starter.

In 43 games, slightly more than one-fourth of the season, the Cardinals have had 24 starts of five innings or fewer. Between them, Hicks and Dakota Hudson have walked 39 hitters 68 2/3 innings.

So the problem is evident. What are possible solutions?

Drew VerHagen, the former Japanese League pitcher who was being groomed as a starter in the spring, hurt his hip and then was waylaid by COVID. Upon his return, he had a strong 2 1/3 inning relief stint on Saturday in Pittsburgh and was awarded the win.

On Tuesday, not so much. Two long homers, of 438 feet by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and 427 by Danny Jansen in two innings.

And also two walks in two innings.

Left-hander Packy Naughton had a start a couple of weeks ago that didn’t really work out, but he throws strikes, works quickly and is eligible to come back from his option on Sunday.

Angel Rondon threw five innings of brilliant relief this past Sunday to gain his first major league win, but, having been optioned after the game, must spend 15 days at Memphis unless somebody else gets hurt.

This brings us to Jake Woodford, whose 15 days will elapse Sunday after he was optioned to Memphis on May 15. He, like Naughton, theoretically could pitch here on Monday against San Diego, which would be Hicks’ next scheduled turn if the Cardinals want to take that tack again.

Woodford, a standout in the rotation last September during the winning streak of 17 games, pitched only three innings, giving up two runs, in his first start for Memphis.

What to do about Hicks? There is still a lot to like but the Cardinals can’t afford to lose virtually every time he starts and exhaust much of their bullpen in the process. Perhaps a minor league stint where he could be stretched out without worry if the game is won or lost would be in order. But that doesn’t seem to be the play for the Cards right now.

Manager Oliver Marmol said afterward, “I never over-react to much. But I really want to take this evening and tomorrow—the day off—to figure out what’s best for Jordan and what’s best for us as a club and that includes our bullpen.

“We’ll make a decision that makes sense.

“He shows sparks of it,” said Marmol, referencing the third inning Tuesday. “He strikes out two All-Stars (Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette) and gets another quick out. It’s like, ‘Let’s roll with that.’ But it’s the consistency of it.”

Alex Reyes is gone for the year. Jack Flaherty doesn’t seem near to pitching in the majors. Rookie Matthew Liberatore already is here—again—with Steven Matz down with a shoulder impingement.

The Cardinals are short at least one starter and maybe two. Woodford doesn’t have the stuff of some the aforementioned but he hasn’t had a chance this season other than pitching mostly mop-up relief. There is always Johan Oviedo, who has had some good starts for Memphis and some horrid ones. He is 4-2 with a 5.24 earned run average at Memphis and, you’ll remember, 0-8 as a Cardinal in two previous seasons.

The schedule has taken a different turn for the Cardinals. In their next 15 games, they will play 10 of them against teams with winning records, including seven with powerhouses Milwaukee and San Diego in seven days here, beginning on Thursday. Both teams are well over .500.

The Cardinals are 11-13 against teams over .500. They are 13-6 against teams who are not.

Veterans Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas will be able to pitch some of the upcoming games. Wainwright will have a start against both Milwaukee and San Diego and Mikolas will have one against Milwaukee. Hudson is slated for one against each team. Will Hicks get another in the hope that that is “The One?”

Can the Cardinals take that chance right now?

Probably not, but Hicks can help in a game like Tuesday’s game—just not as the starter. The next time a situation crops out where early relief is needed, he could come in and perhaps even finish that game, all the while working on consistency. And pace.

“I think one (pace) leads to the other,” said Marmol.

He cited a conversation he had with somebody associated with the club who drew on a basketball (sort of) analogy.

Performing a demonstration in his office, Marmol said, “You take a piece of paper and you crumple it up and try to make a shot into the trash can.

“You shoot and you miss right. You walk away for five minutes and try again. You’re going to keep missing.

“But if you sit there with several (pieces of paper) and you just shoot one after another, you’re going to get closer and closer.

“It’s no different when you pitch. Get the ball and get on the rubber and let’s go. You walk around and take your time. . . there’s too much dead time.

“I want him to speed up because I think he’ll make better adjustments with quicker pace.”

A lengthy bullpen outing or two for Hicks might be the most immediate tonic because so far, he can’t put together a lengthy start.

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