If there was one constant enabling the Cardinals to tread water in the season’s first three weeks before more parts of their game began to click, it was their bullpen.
Relievers were covering between three and four innings per game, very efficiently so. And opponents are hitting just .171 against Cardinals relievers now, by far the lowest in the majors.
The surprising part about this is that veteran lefthander Andrew Miller, the longtime bullpen star they signed to fix bullpen shortcomings, has been of little help so far.
In 13 games, the 33-year-old has retired the first hitter he’s faced only six times. He’s given up four home runs, one more than he allowed in each of the past two seasons, and three of those have come on two-strike counts. He’s walked eight and hit three batters in 11 innings. In spring training, he had an earned-run average of 11.81.
There have been flashes of the dominance Miller displayed in the American League, most recently with Cleveland and the New York Yankees. On Tuesday, Miller ripped through the Milwaukee Brewers, including Christian Yelich, in the eighth inning, striking out two. On the previous home stand, closing out a win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Miller fanned three hitters in the ninth inning.
Then there was Wednesday, when he was handed the ninth inning with a four-run lead, the presumption being that Jordan Hicks would not have to be used. But after a one-out liner dropped in front of left fielder Marcell Ozuna, Miller walked two and hit one of the next four hitters, and he wasn’t able to last long enough for the post-game handshake. Hicks had to come in to retire a lefthanded hitter, Yelich, to save the 5-2 win.
Manager Mike Shildt said, afterward, “We’ll still take our chances with Andrew.”
The Cardinals have $25 million reasons (two-year deal plus an option) why they shouldn’t abandon Miller after one month. He also confirms he is healthy after taking three tours on the disabled list last year with Cleveland for hamstring, shoulder and knee problems.
The downside here is that he hasn’t been consistently effective since 2017 when he had a pair of 144s with Cleveland. His ERA was a spectacular 1.44 and his opponents’ batting average against was an equally spectacular .144.
The year before with the Yankees and Cleveland, his respective ERAs were 1.39 and 1.55 and opponents hit only .174 and .139 against him.
Last year, amid injuries, Miller’s ERA was 4.24, although the opponents’ average of .233 was more than acceptable. But in September, after he returned from his shoulder impingement, he allowed seven earned runs in 10 innings. So it has been awhile since Miller was at his best.
The Cardinals’ recent history in signing free-agent relievers hasn’t been good, with lefthander Brett Cecil being hurt and mostly ineffective, Luke Gregerson mostly being hurt and Greg Holland mostly being ineffective.
Despite the numbers, Miller says he sees himself getting “close,” and Shildt used the same word.
“When his slider has been on the plate, he’s been the Andrew Miller we all expect,” said Shildt. “He has been that guy. And we expect him to get back to that point.”
Miller admitted, “I wish I was pitching better. I’m working on it. It’s not the start I wanted, but I don’t feel far off. I generally get off to good starts in the season, so it’s a little frustrating that I’m not doing that this year. It needs to be better.”
There is not a particular issue, Miller said, and pitching coach Mike Maddux said he, bullpen coach Bryan Eversgerd and Miller have looked at video of Miller’s delivery from 2015, 2017 and 2019.
“They’re identical,” Maddux said. “It’s a matter of timing, more than anything. The delivery is the same. We’ve just got to synch it up.”
Miller said, “I’ve been going through my checklist of adjustments I’ve made in my career, and I’m just looking for the right one. I do feel good physically, and that’s a big positive. Now it’s a matter of getting results.”
With his inconsistency, Miller hasn’t had any outing longer than one inning when it was anticipated that he would be pitching multiple innings on multiple occasions.
The likes of John Gant, John Brebbia, Dominic Leone, Mike Mayers and, of course, Hicks have absorbed much of Miller’s slack.
“I’ve been really impressed with Gant and Brebbia and Dom,” said Miller. “It’s going to hurt not having Mayers (lat injury). He was just starting to find a groove. It’s just unfortunate he’s going to be gone for so long.”
As for first exposure to the explosive Hicks, Miller said, “He’s been pretty darned good. There is no ceiling on him. He could be as good as we’ve ever seen. His stuff is just incredible.”
The 22-year-old Hicks, while pleased to hear Miller’s assessment of his present and future, said, “I just try to get outs. I don’t think about all that stuff.”
Hicks said of Miller, “He’s a good veteran presence to have out there. If I do have any questions ... he knows what he’s talking about. He’s been there for 10 years. We’re all professional big-league baseball players who should have our routines down. But if I do have a question, he’s always willing to give me his best answer.
“And it doesn’t have to be baseball-related. He’s a good person. He’s such a good example.”
Miller was in the same bullpen in New York with lefthander Aroldis Chapman, who was considered the hardest thrower around until Hicks arrived.
“Chapman’s done it for a long time,” Miller said. “But there’s no reason Hicks can’t do that either. It’s just off the charts how good his stuff is.”
Miller has a World Series ring from 2013 with the Boston Red Sox, he played in the World Series with Cleveland in 2016, he’s been in the playoffs with Baltimore and has been on good Yankees and Detroit teams.
“If you guys want to look at wins and losses and run differential ... the teams that win have something special in the clubhouse in the way guys treat each other and the confidence the club has across the board. This club has it,” Miller said.
“The same for the staff, led by Shildty, and the tone he’s established. Those intangible things I truly believe in.”
Now, back to Miller himself.
“I think I’m really close,” he said. “A lot of it is a matter of getting on that run and getting that confidence going. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m not going to give in. I’m not embarrassed. I’m pretty proud of everything I’ve done in this game. I like to take my chances against anybody.
“I’m not embarrassed. Just frustrated.”