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Miller, Cardinals try to get a grip on lefty's lack of feel, inability to 'pull through the fog'

Miller, Cardinals try to get a grip on lefty's lack of feel, inability to 'pull through the fog'

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First official workout of Cardinals spring training

Andrew Miller cuts loose during a spring training workout. (Post-Dispatch photo by Laurie Skrivan)

JUPITER, Fla. — As he’s retraced from his fingertips, up his arm, and through the past few seasons the unnerving sensation that he cannot get a feel for his pitches, lefty Andrew Miller has been unable to find the moment it started or an obvious cause.

That is, of course, the concern.

“I have a hard time describing it because I’m looking as well,” the Cardinals’ veteran reliever said. “In some ways, it’s good that there is no clear-cut pain. What is it? … Trying to figure out why I’ve been battling some things. It just doesn’t feel right, and we’re trying to find an answer as to why, and when you get an answer, you get a solution.”

Miller underwent a series of exams Tuesday and will continue to meet with the club’s medical officials Wednesday as the Cardinals and the lefty try to determine the reason for his issue, and that includes eliminating possibilities. He apologized to reporters for not being able to detail the feeling he didn’t have at his fingers, and admitted that he’s having the same trouble explaining it to team officials. That has the team exploring all sorts of possible causes, from utilizing advanced tech to diagnose his mechanics and spin rate to testing him for nerve issues and examining the circulation to his extremities. The team considers him day to day, officially, largely because the evaluation is going day by day.

In his lone spring appearance, Miller, 34, struggled to maintain control of his pitches. He abruptly stopped his warmups Monday after missing the bullpen catcher and encountering the same lack of touch on his pitches.

“As a competitor you go as long as you can, and it seems like at some point maybe things get to where can’t compensate anymore, and I feel like that’s where I’m at,” Miller said. “I didn’t feel like (Monday) I was going to get anything productive out of my outing. I wasn’t worried about hurting myself, but it was more I just felt like the stuff has been bothering me, that I’ve been trying to get through. It wasn’t getting better. It wouldn’t be productive. We need to take a step-back move and try to get a solution.

“I know what it feels like when I’m right — the sensation I have of throwing a baseball,” he added. “Right now, throwing a baseball isn’t consistent with what it is when I know I’m good. It’s been a challenge.”

In the span of a few hours Monday, the Cardinals had three lefties on the 40-man roster all encounter some setback, testing the depth that the Cardinals have flexed all spring. Kwang Hyun Kim had no lingering issues with a sore groin, and he will start Thursday, two days later than originally planned. Genesis Cabrera left a start in the second inning with a cracked fingernail. An acrylic nail will be applied, and he should return after three or four days. Miller’s situation is more nebulous — to him and the team. They hope for clarity in the coming days. Manager Mike Shildt described it as Miller lost “the literal feel” for his pitches.

Through the injuries, two other lefties did assert themselves. In the Cardinals’ 6-3 victory against Houston at Roger Dean Stadium, Tyler Webb retired all three batters he faced — and all of them were righthanded hitters. He got two groundouts and a strikeout on a fastball. In the same game Miller was supposed to appear, Brett Cecil threw a scoreless inning, and was more effective with his breaking ball than he’s been since dealing with arm troubles that were eventually diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome. Cecil and Adam Wainwright reviewed video of his delivery in 2015 and from an appearance this spring to help tune his mechanics. He’s operating with a little less velocity and a little more of a challenge because the three-batter minimum wedged into baseball this season will require him to face righthanded batters if he’s in the Cardinals’ bullpen. Shildt said the team has a “plan” for him to attack righties.

“I think more now than ever before in my career the game is more focused on pitch execution,” Cecil said. “Movement and pitch execution and pitch location.”

The Cardinals signed Miller to a two-year deal in part because Cecil’s injuries and ineffectiveness left them without a late-game lefty. Miller appeared in 73 games last season — his highest number since 2014 — and had a 4.45 ERA to go with 70 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings. He expressed disappointment in his season, noting its inconsistency and his lack of feel at time for the strike zone. He hit a career high eight batters.

Asked Tuesday if he could pitch through the issue being examined, Miller had a direct answer: He has been.

“You keep waiting, you keep putting the work in and hoping you kind of pull through the fog and do what you expect of yourself,” Miller said. “It’s just been an incredible grind, and fortunately we’re at a time of spring training right now that it seems like the time. I’ve been grinding for so long looking for answers that let’s dig a little deeper. It’s absolutely frustrating.”

The Cardinals have trained the Edgertronic high-speed cameras on him and used the data-guzzling Rapsodo devices to detail how Miller looks now vs. previously. He said they’ve checked his extension and biometrics to see if there is a mechanical reason for his issues — one that could be easily addressed. He explained that they’re also looking for similar sensations in his feet and right hand to see if blood is reaching the extremities, for example, but he doesn’t throw with any of them so the feeling could vary.

The process of elimination has given him some guardrails for the pursuit, and he said they don’t think it’s the carpal tunnel syndrome like Cecil had, and Miller added that he doesn’t show the symptoms that would lead to thoracic outlet surgery. He said that before additional tests were coming, and he stressed that he’s looking for answers just like the reporters asking.

“I don’t know that you hope to find something because it means there’s something very treatable, very fixable,” Miller said. “I know when the ball feels right coming out of my hand. I’ve been looking for it. Maybe fortunately, there’s no obvious answer. But also unfortunately, we’ve got to keep digging for more underlying stuff.

“I don’t have that answer right now.”

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