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Goold: Cardinals set to expand rotation with rookie Oviedo, prove six can be their serious number
CARDINALS INSIDER

Goold: Cardinals set to expand rotation with rookie Oviedo, prove six can be their serious number

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Milwaukee Brewers vs St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals' Johan Oviedo pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com)

If he didn’t coin the phrase years ago Mike Maddux certainly popularized it this spring as the Cardinals budgeted how they were going to manage their rotation coming back from 2020’s abbreviated schedule and radically reduced workloads.

“Honor the off days,” Maddux said.

“Honor the off days,” manager Mike Shildt echoed.

Whenever the schedule permitted, pitchers would get the extra day off.

Now that the schedule does not, the Cardinals will invent one.

As the Cardinals return home to start a stretch of 17 games in 17 days, they will insert rookie Johan Oviedo into the rotation this coming week as a sixth man. It will be the first time in recent memory that the Cardinals have gone to a true six-man rotation, and the purpose will be to create an extra day of rest for each starter. By making two starts in the next two weeks, Oviedo allows the other members of the rotation to have five days between starts, as they have this month.

“Honoring the off days. We’re keeping guys fresher for September and we hope October, and that’s the idea,” Maddux said this past week. “Does it cost them a start or two over the length of the season? Maybe. But what do we gain? It allows them more time to recover. Gives them that day, betting it keeps them sharper. It pays dividends later.”

The Cardinals spend their last off day of April as a last-place team, at 8-10 and the bottom of the National League Central. They have won one series so far this season, dropped two on their recent road trip, and a root cause has been the inconsistent and innings-thin starts by the rotation. It is difficult to win consecutive series without reliable, game to game, starts. They finished their two-city trip with three consecutive quality starts (at least six innings, no more than three earned runs) and now have four for the season.

The Cincinnati Reds make their first visit for 2021 to Busch Stadium this weekend and there’s still that stinging aftertaste of Tabasco from the teams’ previous meeting.

When the division rivals faced each other to open the season, a fracas emptied both dugouts and bullpens after Reds outfielder Nicholas Castellanos scored, stood up, and flexed over rookie pitcher Jake Woodford. The moment sent a message and has been captured on T-shirts in Cincinnati. If the Cardinals are going to contend for a division title, they are designed to succeed by flipping that image.

They need to flex their arms over hitters.

Partly by performance and partly by plan, they’ve been judicious with their pitchers.

“We haven’t had a guy taking it to the limit, per se,” Maddux said. “We’ve had a pitch count in mind, on purpose. Spring training was shorter. Usually, you build up to 100 pitches in spring, and we had that in mind. Eighty is the number, then you get to 90, and a spring 90 is a lot different than a regular-season 90. We had to keep that jump in mind.

“We haven’t taken the cap off.”

As recently as this past road trip, the bullpen had thrown more innings than the rotation. That’s stabilized with the past three starts, but still the bullpen has handled the eight-most innings in the majors (70 2/3). The rotation has the fifth-worst ERA (5.27) and it has one of the lowest innings-per-game in the majors. Only three teams in the National League have averaged fewer than the Cardinals’ 4 2/3 innings from a starter. Only Wainwright and Carlos Martinez, in his most recent appearance, have had two starts with fewer than five days between them.

Loosening the cap begins with better, more efficient performances — and the uptick to a six-man rotation.

The Cardinals “started piecing together this puzzle” during spring training, Maddux said, and they considered how to go from needing 473 innings in 2020 from the staff to around 1,458 for a full season in 2021. Maddux agreed that he was “curious” to see what other teams will do to meter innings, and some have gone with six-man rotations or a hybrid of sorts, like the Cardinals’ scheme that started back in spring. The Cardinals geared some of Oviedo’s preparation and assignments with an expanded rotation in mind. Injuries to starters Kwang Hyun Kim and Miles Mikolas during spring shuffled the plans but did not scuttle them.

Kim will make his second start of the season Friday, and because it comes after an off day he will be at the front of the rotation’s turn. The Cardinals have announced that Kim, John Gant, and Jack Flaherty will start the three games vs. the Reds. Wainwright and Martinez, off his six-inning show Wednesday, will open the weekday visit from Philadelphia, according to the team.

Oviedo appears set for Wednesday.

That gives the current rotation three turns, with Oviedo as the buffer on Wednesday and May 4 against the New York Mets to assure every pitcher gets five days between starts.

Mikolas, scheduled for a live batting practice session this weekend, remains several weeks away from joining the rotation. The next off day is May 10. The rotation will remain fluid to respond to Mikolas’ readiness and its current starters’ performances.

Right now, they are hewing the rotation to the calendar.

Eventually, they’ll fit it to the standings.

“It’s a pretty good practice to honor the off days during a long season and get six days when you can, because that won’t always be possible,” Maddux said. “I’ve seen it work where I’ve been on a staff with three starters and you patchwork together the rest of it, just to keep those three rolling. C.C. Sabathia pitched every four days down the stretch for us (in Milwaukee). If you’ve got a deep staff that’s another way you can separate yourself.”

There is, they hope, a competitive edge to making the move.

While proactively protecting players’ health guides the hand, keeping the best pitchers healthy also improves a team. The Cardinals have trumpeted the pitching talent they have on the cusp of the majors, like Oviedo, and not as replacements, but factors. The goal isn’t to have any of the young starters cover available innings. They want them to claim more innings.

The number that the Cardinals must target most to surface from their struggles and the floor of the division is six. But it is not the number of arms in the rotation. It’s the innings that day’s starter must provide, and fast.

At least.

After becoming the first and only Cardinal starter so far this season to complete the seventh inning, Wainwright was asked Tuesday about how the starters expressed their frustrations as they stretched to reach six innings.

“It’s never a quest for six,” Wainwright corrected. “That is never the quest. It’s a quest for nine every time I take the mound, and if you go less than that it better be over seven. That’s my mentality.”

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