NEW YORK — A bullpen thinned by extended use and not limitations meant to preserve and protect young, hotshot closer Jordan Hicks kept the Cardinals from using the righthander for the ninth inning Sunday. That continued a long stretch of rare usage for the Hicks.
The Cardinals’ closer was available Sunday, manager Mike Shildt said, but he remained in the bullpen as insurance, the last line of defense for a bullpen that didn’t have any other available arms. Carlos Martinez pitched two scoreless innings to complete the save, his second, and Hicks completed the 10-game trip with only two appearances, both resulting in saves, and more than halfway through this month he has pitched only 3 1/3 innings.
“We’re not going to throw innings on Jordan for the sake of doing it,” Shildt said after the 4-3 victory against the Mets. “We’re not going to baby him, either. That wasn’t an indication of saving innings for Jordan. That was a representation of where we were in the bullpen.”
Hicks, 22, is coming off his first full season in the majors and is handling his first season as the Cardinals’ closer. The team altered his schedule during spring training to minimize the innings he threw in exhibition games and save those outings for the regular season, and at times already this season they have massaged his appearances. Asked Sunday if he’s able to use Hicks three times in four days, for multiple innings, or other strenuous stretches that can confront a closer, Shildt said yes.
They’re not operating under Jordan Rules.
There are Jordan preferences.
Hicks has 14 saves in 25 appearances this season, and one-fifth of those appearances have come on five days of rest or more. Half his innings so far this season came in the season’s first month.
The situation Sunday was set up by a suspended game Thursday. Hicks was used Friday to close that extra-inning win, and in the regularly scheduled game John Gant handled the final three innings for the win. Gant’s added work allowed for Martinez and Hicks, both of whom pitched in the suspended game’s finish, to be ready to close Saturday or Sunday.
An inning mishandled here or there, and Shildt said he’d have to wedge one of them into an assignment he didn’t want. When Martinez sped through the eighth inning Sunday, Shildt gave him the ninth to save Hicks should there be trouble – or extra innings. The Cardinals did not have a readily available long reliever, Shildt said.
“We don’t have a short guy, either,” the manager detailed. “That’s the reality of what happens when you have three games in a row where your starter gets to (only) four innings. That just how it works. The bullpen roles are great. But they become pretty inflexible when things get out of order, and things get out of order. Things happened.”
LICENSE TO STEAL
With six stolen bases in Saturday’s game and 10 total in the series against the Mets, the Cardinals strengthened their lead in a category in which their talk of improving often has outpaced their actual improvement. The Cardinals’ 49 stolen bases lead the National League and are fourth in the majors. They’re 14 steals shy of tying last year’s total, which was the fifth-fewest in the majors.
It had become an annual statement of spring — this wish to be more aggressive, sneakier with steals — and once the season started, the brakes went on. This spring, Shildt and his staff talked to the team about improving their baserunning as a whole. That meant looking for steals, not shying from them.
“Aggressive is the right term, and I would put it one step further,” Shildt said. “Intelligently aggressive. Smart aggressive. We don’t want to run just to run. We want to run because we feel like we can make it. The numbers are great. What’s most important is the percentage of being successful. We know that an out has more value than safe, so we want to make sure that we’re aggressive, but with reason.”
The Cardinals have stolen 49 bases in 59 attempts. Five Cardinals have at least four steals this season while being thrown out only once. Kolten Wong leads the team with 13 steals, including two Saturday, and he’s yet to be thrown out. He and Shildt spoke entering the season about taking the restrictor plates off on the bases, as Wong felt in recent years he would too often get the stop sign. He has relished the green light given by Shildt.
Wong is one steal shy of matching his total from the previous two seasons, and he’s on pace to break his career-high of 20 set as a rookie in 2014.
“I feel like I’ve been wasting my speed just going base to base or first to third when I can already be on second,” Wong said. “I really want to be more aggressive. Getting the belief from Shildt that I’m not going to be someone who runs into outs, pick my spots, and do the things I know I can.”
MUNOZ TAKES PATERNITY LEAVE
Infielder Yairo Munoz flew Sunday night to the Dominican Republic so he could be on hand Monday for the birth of his third child, a daughter. Munoz beamed as he explained this was the first time that he could be present for birth, and he waved to all of his teammates as he left the clubhouse.
The Cardinals will put Munoz on paternity leave. The promotion could be a short one for any eligible player added Monday as the Cardinals also expect to have Jedd Gyorko (lower back) available for the active roster Tuesday, the day he’s allowed to come off the injured list.
MORE PICKS SIGN
The Cardinals announced deals with four more draft picks: 16th-rounder Thomas Hart, a pitcher from Wakeland (Texas) High; 22nd-rounder Zade Richardson, a catcher from Wabash Valley Community College; 27th-rounder Eric Lex, a righthanded pitcher from Santa Clara; and 31st-rounder Dylan Pearce, a lefty from Oregon State. The Cardinals have signed 28 of their 40 picks from this month’s draft. The two highest-drafted players yet to sign are both pitchers from California universities – Andre Pallante, the fourth-rounder from UC-Irvine, and Jack Ralston, a redshirt senior and Friday night starter for UCLA.
Although not officially announced as the starter, Daniel Ponce de Leon is being prepped to face the Marlins on Wednesday, the last day the Cardinals expect to need a starter before Adam Wainwright (hamstring) returns to the rotation. ... Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard went on the 10-day injured list Sunday, a day after straining a hamstring against the Cardinals. ... The Cardinals signed free-agent pitcher Juan Peralta, a 16-year-old in the Dominican, and assigned him to their Blue squad in the Dominican Summer League.