Even as they discussed all spring their vision for a versatile, aggressive bullpen that valued matchups over roles, the Cardinals’ management believed a reliever eventually would emerge to usurp the ninth inning and become their destination closer.
They just got there sooner than expected.
“Every day now when we show up it’s, ‘How do we get the ball to Jordan?’” pitching coach Mike Maddux said.
With more circumstance than pomp, the Cardinals have installed second-year reliever Jordan Hicks as their closer. His lack of use recently has revealed the club’s commitment to this role. The Cardinals’ losing trudge through May left Hicks marooned in the bullpen in 15 of the 18 games before the series finale in Texas. He hasn’t pitched in a save situation in three weeks.
On Sunday morning the Cardinals, as Maddux explained, asked how to get the ball to Jordan. The answer included multiple innings and as many as 40 pitches from their well-rested closer. They turned to him in the eighth inning of a one-run game at Globe Life Park.
As he chased his longest assignment of the season, Hicks threw 12 of the 16 fastest pitches in the majors this season — all at 102.5 mph or swifter. But the bottom of the 10th inning went sideways on him. His 39th and final pitch was lashed for the game-tying single, and the 5-4 loss to the Rangers moments later was affixed to Hicks’ record.
Weeks of not enough Hicks suddenly had become a day with too much Hicks. That put the Cardinals’ situation in sharp relief: Once intent on maximizing matchups, can they still consistently capitalize on a player with one of the game’s greatest arms while also keeping him in the closer role?
“It’s finding ways to use him appropriately,” manager Mike Shildt said. “We sat here for the whole road trip and the situation didn’t dictate that he got in the game. We, as a staff, have been in this game long enough to know that situations change. And if you get out of whack with your bullpen and just start throwing guys for the sake of throwing them, when the opportunities present themselves they’re not available.”
The Cardinals continue an interleague island in their schedule with a two-game series against Kansas City that is scheduled to start Tuesday night at Busch Stadium, though there is a 90 percent chance of rain in the forecast. They’ve lost five consecutive series and 13 of their past 17 games. Their offense has sputtered and cratered with runners in scoring position.
Paul DeJong has as many hits with runners in scoring position (two) as the rest of the team in the past six games, and the Cardinals are four for their last 35 (.114) with a runner in scoring position. The bullpen has been, at worst, an accomplice. And yet it received the most dramatic makeover during the trip.
The Cardinals placed Luke Gregerson on release waivers Monday and will soon pay out the remainder of his two-year, $11-million contract. Dominic Leone was optioned to Class AAA Memphis. In their place, Carlos Martinez and Ryan Helsley arrived as an infusion of power, each capable of multiple innings. Along with John Gant and John Brebbia, the new duo offers the nimbleness the Cardinals wanted all winter to break free from roles and embrace an approach of using the best reliever at the best time.
Before Sunday’s game, Shildt was asked if the use of Hicks as the closer means the Cardinals have shifted to a traditional ending with a non-traditional route to it.
“I think that’s fair. I think that’s more or less what we’ve done,” he said. “So now you’ve got interchangeable parts. It could introduce (lefty Andrew) Miller a little earlier for that lefty spot. Or Carlos earlier, depending on matchups. It’s so nice because we really do have (the) same value no matter what direction you’re going in.”
Throughout the winter, Shildt kept in touch with the relievers and, after the acquisition of Miller, urged them all to think about the situations they might own, not the specific innings.
There wouldn’t be the recipe of a seventh-inning reliever, an eighth-inning setup, and closer. Instead, the plan, repeated throughout spring training would be to have Miller available to close when a lefthanded hitter loomed in the ninth, and free up Hicks for use when the middle of the order was up or the game teetered at its fulcrum.
Ultimately, the Cardinals expected Hicks to close.
Miller’s inconsistent start to the season and Gant’s excellence as a setup reliever — often in the role imagined for Hicks — prefaced a shift in thinking. Hicks cinched that.
“We all have ideas going in, and we make adjustments,” Maddux said. “Jordan kind of told us, ‘If you need the last three outs, I’ll get them.’ I think Jordan paved his own way with that one. He was probably our best option coming in, and he’s run with it. He’s comfortable in that situation. He’s got a lot of mettle for a young guy. I don’t think the game gets fast on him. Pretty stoic, in a good way. Kind of a flat-liner.”
Said Hicks: “I’m not super-surprised. That was my expectation for myself. I wanted to be in the back end of games, whenever they want me, whenever they need me. But I’m glad it’s that inning. It’s where I want to be.”
This shift has surfaced several times in recent defeats.
In their most recent home game, a loss to Pittsburgh, the middle of the Pirates’ order came up in the seventh inning with runners on. Gant was unavailable, otherwise that moment was his.
Had the Cardinals leaned like they described in the spring, Miller or Hicks would have been the call. Shildt explained how those same hitters could come up again in the ninth, so he would not use Hicks. Miller was “a reasonable thought,” but he sided with John Brebbia, who had been one of the most reliable relievers. Brebbia allowed a three-run homer to Josh Bell that flipped the game. Hicks never threw a pitch that day.
Or the one before.
Or the one after.
Or the one after that.
Hicks went so long in dry dock that during the Cardinals’ series in Atlanta he started warming up late in a game with the Braves well ahead just so he could pitch while a stadium was alive with fans. He wanted to “get some adrenaline going, maybe.” Pregame throws and mound work in an empty stadium wasn’t doing it.
Before Sunday, Hicks had thrown 28 pitches this season at 101.8 mph or faster. On Sunday, he threw 22 at 101.9 mph or faster. That’s the kind of asset the Cardinals have in their bullpen; their just waiting on more reasons to use him.
“He’s a young guy with a special arm — and he’s got a role,” Shildt said. “It’s a balancing act, for sure. You take care of all the guys. Pitch when their role dictates it. We’re not going to throw innings on Jordan just to throw innings on him. . . . We know there will be a time when it will be Jordan’s chance, and it’ll be coming up more consistently.
“So, let’s make sure he’s ready and fresh for when that happens.”