FORT MYERS, Fla. • With his reach and the steep angle of his fastball when it cuts down into the strike zone — at its best — Cardinals starter Michael Wacha has made a career by aiming down, down, down.
“I’m trying to hit the catcher right in his knees,” the righthander said. “Every fastball I throw I’m thinking down in the zone.”
This spring, the Cardinals want him looking up.
In his first start of spring training, Wacha had the outing his peers wanted with two brisk, scoreless innings Monday. He held the Minnesota Twins to one walk while getting outs on three groundouts and three flyouts. After back-to-back days when Carlos Martinez and Miles Mikolas had misbehaving fastballs and allowed a combined 12 base-runners and seven runs in three innings — neither finished the second — Wacha’s outing was downright breezy.
The first three batters didn’t get a ball past the infield dirt, and the next three saw 95 mph and a diving changeup. And, he elevated a few fastballs.
“It’s even more common knowledge now how good he is at the bottom of the zone,” manager Mike Matheny said. “To then try and elevate, there is an art to it. It’s almost like a completely different pitch to throw that high one. So far, what we’re seeing is Miles is trying to come up. He’s been down, down, down. Trying to come up. It’s a tough pitch to execute on a consistent basis because it’s higher risk. But there is also a high reward.”
The Cardinals, under new pitching coach Mike Maddux’s guidance, have had all of their pitchers working on the elevated fastball , trying to get them proficient with it.
Of the starters, Wacha has the angle of his pitch that could be the hardest to translate to the top shelf, but he also could get significant benefit. The elevated fastball should come from the same release as his curve — at 20 mph faster.
“I know it looks enticing to hitters,” he said.
Wacha retired the first three batters he faced on ground balls, and in the second inning Kennys Vargas took an inviting changeup to set up his walk. The next two batters popped up, and those are results Wacha could get with the high fastball, if not some velocity-driven strikeouts.
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The righthander is coming off an assertive season that saw him avoid a chronic shoulder issue and make 30 starts for 165 2/3 innings. He intends to use the same regimen that worked last season, which includes throwing a bullpen session on the third day after a start and not throwing at all the day after a start. He made the point that’s “a month off” for his arm.
Martinez worked around three walks as he failed to find his rhythm Saturday. Mikolas’ fastball had helium Sunday and got tagged for six runs. Wacha’s first start was superior, and his situation is right in the middle of those two —somewhere between only preparing and absolutely competing for a role.
“Carlos, we know Carlos. I guess we can’t sit here and honestly say that Miles is in the exact same situation as Carlos, right?” Matheny said. “Miles is in here competing. That’s not exactly how you’d have drawn it up or how he’d like to make his introduction. After that? February. Come back out. … Michael has got a great track record, and that’s growing.”
DEJONG SIGNED, CONTRACTS CONTINUE
The Cardinals have completed a contract with shortstop Paul DeJong, and only a handful of players on the 40-man roster remain unsigned. All players with less than three years of service time have until March 11 to negotiate a contract with their teams, or the team can impose a salary through a process called “renewal.”
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The players have little leverage as a result, but many teams like the Cardinals use a formula to determine a salary based on service time, games played, games played in the most recent season, and, of course performance. DeJong, who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and led the Cardinals with 25 homers, received one of the higher salaries given a player with less than a year of service time.
One player yet to sign is Tommy Pham.
Pham, coming off his breakout year, has one more year before he is eligible for arbitration, so the Cardinals retain control of setting his salary for 2018. Neither side expects the discussion to reach a renewal point.
CONTINUE TO DAZZLE
Whether it was Adolis Garcia stealing a run from Minnesota or Oscar Mercado stealing a base (or two), the Cardinals’ cache of young outfielders continued its early-spring showcase. Garcia had two hits, including a go-ahead RBI against the Twins, and he made sure that run gave the Cardinals a lead by throwing out Brian Dozier in the third inning.
Through four games, Garcia and fellow Cuban outfielder Randy Arozarena have been revelations, and Garcia offers some of the traits the Cardinals seek in their fourth outfielder spot: speed, ambush power and ability to play all three outfield spots, and he may have the best arm of the candidates.
Mercado stole third and second base Monday, and he showed an easy gallop to take away extra bases with a catch in center field.
The Cardinals could use the bench as a carousel this season with outfielders like Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill and the February standouts rotating to assure playing time when that role is expected to get little in the majors.
“It’s nice to see what’s coming,” Matheny said. “Watching Adolis come up and make this fantastic play. You’re watching Mercado go back like it was nothing. He was all in there whenever he got on the bases. Live body. Just a lot to be excited about how that could come into play at some point.”