Wacha Comes Close to No-Hitter with Pirates, Wins 5-0

Cards Dexter Fowler tosses a ball to a fan at Busch Stadium on Sunday, June 3, 2018, as the Cardinals beat the Pirates 5-0. Fowler did not play in the game. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

SUMMERLIN, Nev. • As blunt as the numbers were on the scoreboard every time he walked up to hit, the heavier struggles dragging on Dexter Fowler revealed themselves when his irrepressible, day-glow smile curved the way of his batting average and then followed his playing time and for stretches vanished altogether.

He faced repeated questions about the reason for his sluggish performance. Nagging foot injuries had healed, he said. His legs were fine. No, he wasn’t ill. There was not an allergy, food poisoning, a virus or any other explanation offered for the lethargy that smothered his game. He searched, too, for an answer because he felt what others saw — that he was playing baseball as if underwater, in a darker corner of the deep end.

He was.

“I was depressed,” Fowler said. “That’s what I was. I got mad that I let it get to me. I should be mentally stronger than that. I shouldn’t have let it weigh me down as much as it did. But I was. I was depressed. I was depressed.”

The Cardinals outfielder leaned forward in his chair in the great room of his Las Vegas-area home as he described his feelings of depression during a candid, expansive interview this past week. A day after hosting the Cardinals’ front office and engaging in a karaoke faceoff with a teammate in the same room, Fowler punctuated his comments by tapping a table, sometimes with a water bottle and others with his hand. Often with a grin. He explained how he knew he’s “playing a game” and how he’d “gone through ruts before” with confidence. But 2018 cut deeper. Understanding why brightens his view of a revival in 2019.

The Cardinals have publicly — and privately to Fowler — backed the veteran as their starter in right field. There are three years remaining on a five-year, $82.5 million deal that saw career-high power numbers in year 1, career lows galore in year 2, and turbulence throughout. He’s energized by the belief the team has shown in him this winter. The bounce is back in more than just his foot. He recently told his wife, Aliya, how he “wants Cardinal Nation to know that side of me. I hope I earn that opportunity.”

As Fowler spoke, his oldest daughter, Naya, 4, scampered through the house looking for her mom and stopped briefly enough to make her father laugh about her urgency. His youngest, 5-month-old Ivy, was carried in for a goodnight kiss and beamed when she heard her father’s voice. He returned her smile. This is his life, he said. Baseball is his job. But, he then stressed, baseball is the game he “truly loves.” Always has been. Ask his mother, he insisted twice. She arrived that day for a visit. She did confirm.

He was asked if he lost that love in 2018.

“Um,” Fowler said.

He paused for five seconds. The house went silent, no tapping.

“I lost loving what is around the game,” he said.

“He’s just a good, happy, positive person,” Aliya Fowler explained later. “It’s the best way to describe him. Last year he wasn’t, and it was confusing. As his wife, I could see, whatever it was, was eating him up. He couldn’t shake it. … No matter how many times I said, ‘Just go out there and do your job,’ he would agree, and come back that night, defeated. The defeat was beyond the game. It was in his heart.”

Fowler had two singles, a walk and an RBI to back one bold prediction on Aug. 3 in Pittsburgh. He had bounded out of batting practice and told teammates “spring training is over.” He had the commitment of new manager Mike Shildt and felt a groove in his swing. The season seemed buoyant again as he reached second base in the eighth inning.

He hasn’t played since.

Fowler fractured his left foot in that game and put his broken 2018 season, officially, in a cast. His .576 OPS ranked 307th of the 313 players who had 250 plate appearances, and he finished the summer with a .180 average and his foot back in a protective boot. After returning home in October, Fowler saw a foot specialist who said he needed an additional six weeks in the boot. That setback delayed his return to full workouts and baseball activities until this month.

“I’m excited to put this all behind us and move on,” he said.

Cardinals head trainer Adam Olsen visited Fowler in Vegas last week and later lauded his workouts in an email. Like his teammates, Fowler received a file on his metrics from this past season and suggestions on what he could improve. Fowler’s showed his exit velocity was down and his footspeed slowed. According to Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity shriveled to 85.3 mph from 88.4 mph in 2017, and his sprinting dipped to 27.4 feet per second from 28.3 in 2016. He called the numbers “common sense.”

“I was in a slump,” he said. “When you get hot, your exit velo is going to go up and everything starts to level out. I never got there. My foot speed is down?” He laughed, wryly, and continued, “I didn’t run any bases because really I wasn’t on base.”

John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, and Shildt flew to Vegas to meet Fowler earlier this offseason and, in Fowler’s words, “wipe the slate clean.” Mozeliak and Fowler have grown close, and Mozeliak was aware of Fowler’s feelings of depression. The Cardinals have offered whatever support the outfielder wants. In the meeting, Mozeliak and Shildt gave Fowler the kind of confidence he sought this past year. Fowler said he felt doubt emanating from the former manager’s office, and their relationship frayed.

As the crater deepened, Fowler referenced 2015 for traction. He went from May 1 to June 11 that summer and hit .202/.282/.340 in 279 plate appearances. The Cubs committed to him as leadoff hitter and he responded with a .279/.394/.467 line in his final 75 games, 69 of which he started.

In 2017, his first with the Cardinals, he started slow and on May 25 had hit .203/.300/.420 in 160 plate appearances. The Cardinals kept with him. He hit .295 and had a gaudy .926 OPS in his final 88 games.

He started 31 of the first 35 games in 2018 and wheezed to a .574 OPS. On May 10, he had a .156 average and a .271 on-base percentage. That same day, Matt Carpenter had a .147 average and a .581 OPS. That was the fork in their season.

Carpenter slugged his way to MVP votes.

Fowler’s production idled. His playing time shrank to 43 starts in the next 75 games, his plate appearances per game cut in half. The Cardinals had stronger alternatives at his position in Jose Martinez and Harrison Bader, and pressure mounted on manager Mike Matheny to win. Patience thinned. Fowler requested faith and playing time. When Shildt gave it, the foot injury halted any chance Fowler had to reward the investment.

Now it’s been promised again.

“It was tough because it felt like I couldn’t do anything to change it, couldn’t change how I was treated, and if you couldn’t change it, it felt like you’ve been removed from it,” Fowler said. “It’s a tough thing to describe. … It’s like you believe in me, you believe in the way I play, you believe in my talent. I put all of it in God’s hands and let it take care of itself. But it means a lot to hear that: You believe in me.”

On a snow-covered day after the 2013 season, Fowler checked his Garmin GPS watch and tugged on a knit beanie. He had miles to run outside of Salt Lake City, hills to climb, and a workout to complete all because Barry Bonds said so. Fowler was seeking instruction from the seven-time MVP. In response, he got a workout regimen that Fowler is convinced was designed to “make me quit.”

He had yet to meet Bonds in person.

“He said if he’s going to teach me how to hit, he’s going to need my body in the position that you’re able to learn how to hit,” Fowler said. “I’m trying to be the best, so that’s what I’m going to do. My whole mindset is if I’m going to learn from the best, I’m going to do everything that he says to do, and if I fail at it then I can always look back and say I did it. I did everything. I did everything and it’s not in the cards.”

He did everything and ever since has called Bonds a mentor. Fowler has also hired a chef, a trainer and a physical therapist, and he works with them almost daily, even before reporting to the ballpark. Fowler detailed his workouts because he wished he could bring critics along to “work with me, see what it’s like.” They “only know the numbers,” he said. He’s aware of criticism from fans and has retreated from Twitter, in part because of poisonous things said to him.

Fowler originally planned to travel to a friend's wedding in Mexico next month, on the same weekend as Winter Warm-up, and miss the annual fanfest for the third consecutive year. After discussions this weekend with his wife, he altered those plans and notified the Cardinals that he will attend the Warm-up. Part of a commitment, shared.

The Bonds story serves another purpose, too.

“I never quit,” Fowler said. “Too competitive.”

Fowler will spend several weeks with Bonds later this winter, and he has already started hitting. On Wednesday, he invited Mozeliak and other officials to see the multi-sport simulator screen he’s using in his garage to measure ball flight and exit velocity off a tee. He challenged them to a contest in simulated golf. Fowler went last and dropped a shot onto the green to win. He celebrated by saying, “And still …”

That’s boxing shorthand for “and still champion of the world.”

That same evening, Cardinals lefty Chasen Shreve could not outduel Fowler in karaoke, the host said. A “microphone hog,” according to his family, Fowler claimed to dominate karaoke because “I have a lot of genres.” He favors Usher, but sometimes shifts to Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, and can flash Stevie Wonder, for the knockout. His wife watched and saw what she’s had since the clouds of 2018 broke. The foot injury assured Fowler more time with family, more time with his daughters, more time on the mic, and through them came “the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

“The happy-to-the-point-I-will-pester-you-with-my-smile-and-happiness Dex is back,” Aliya Fowler texted this weekend.

And still, indeed.

“Honestly, I’m excited to get back out there, to run around, to catch a fly ball, to hit a home run, to hit a line drive again, to be there and to compete,” Fowler said, tapping that table each time he said “to” for emphasis. “I don’t want to disappoint anybody. If anybody wants to be great, it’s me. … I know this: I can do better. I know better is out there. I want to show I’m getting better, better, better — better. Now we go. Now it’s time.”