As much reorganizing and retrofitting as the Cardinals have done to their rotation in the past several weeks to add a veteran or rest rookies, one motivation, subtler than the rest, has been to steal a break or two for the steadiest starter they’ve had all season.
All-Star Miles Mikolas, striding toward a career high for innings pitched, has already twice had an extra day between starts and will do so again in the coming week. The purpose, manager Mike Shildt explained early Tuesday, is to flex the team’s depth and do whatever possible to keep Mikolas sharp and strong into the autumn of his first full season back in the majors. The results were obvious Tuesday.
And, he’s not alone.
Proactive with rest for Mikolas and reactive with rest for outfielder Marcell Ozuna and his shoulder, the Cardinals benefited from the health of both in an 11-5 victory Tuesday against Pittsburgh at Busch Stadium. Ozuna’s first-inning double, clubbed to left field, gave Mikolas the slim lead he spent most of his seven innings protecting. Mikolas completed seven innings for the first time in nearly a month, and before the Cardinals opened up the game with a sixth-run eighth he allowed one run on six baserunners. At one point, he struck out five consecutive.
“That extra day is big at this point in the season,” said Mikolas, who already has a career-high 29 starts and with 180 2/3 innings is as little as one start away from his career-best 188. “You (can) take that extra day, get some stuff done at your own place, and not (try) to crunch running and lifting and throwing and treatment and this and that all into one day. It allows you to space it out. Takes a little mental burden off of you — a little bit of a breather.”
With a second win against the Pirates, the Cardinals won their 12th series in their past 14 and gained breathing room on their nearest pursuer. The Dodgers lost at Cincinnati to slip three games behind the Cardinals for the National League’s second wild-card berth. LA is 0-9 against the Cardinals and Reds this season with one more game in Cincinnati before visiting St. Louis for a pivotal four-game series. On the eve of that series, the Cardinals are inserting a sixth starter, Daniel Poncedeleon, to nudge the rotation back for an extra day of rest.
Ozuna just had to be nudged toward needing rest.
The left fielder spent most of the season insisting that he could play through pain, as he did last season. Soreness in his right shoulder limited his throwing, and it became increasingly apparent it sapped power. Shildt said the shoulder “was a little more compromised than maybe we realized.” This past month, in LA, he received treatment for inflammation, tendinitis and other issues caused by an impingement. He’ll have a followup exam after the season to determine if a cleanup surgery is required, officials have said. But the result of the rest and the treatment has been buoyant: His two-run double extended a seven-game hitting streak (13-for-30, .433), and his three RBIs gave him his team-best 20th multi-RBI game.
In nine games since the treatment, he has six extra-base hits and nine RBIs to go with a .342 average and a .763 slugging percentage.
“I’m not chasing as much as I was before, but the reason was my arm wasn’t in the right spot,” Ozuna said. “Right now, my arm is better, and (that’s when) I do my best swing. I wasn’t ready to (fire) every time and wasn’t in the right spot to swing at the pitch.”
The top of the Cardinals’ order scored six of the 11 runs, and that started in the first when leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter drew a walk. Jose Martinez followed with a single. Ozuna doubled Carpenter home for the MVP candidate’s 312th run scored at Busch Stadium. That tied Carpenter for the ballpark record with Albert Pujols, who hasn’t scored a run downtown in nearly seven years. Carpenter eclipsed Pujols in the sixth, when he scored on a wild pitch for his 313th run scored at the Cardinals’ ballpark. In between the two two-run bursts from the top of the lineup, Pirates’ starter Joe Musgrove held serve, waiting for his offense to arrive.
At one point, Musgrove (6-9) retired 14 consecutive Cardinals.
Mikolas (15-4) spent that time preserving a one-run lead before it swelled to three. The berserk rally, half of which came from Tyler O’Neill’s three-run homer, came an inning after Mikolas’ departure. Bud Norris, who has been repurposed as a key setup man, pitched a perfect eighth but grimaced, multiple times, as he left with left leg discomfort that Shildt said was fine after the game. “Fighting some lower-half things,” Shildt said. “Said he’s fine.”
The manager referred to Mikolas as “tremendous.”
As August turned the Cardinals into a contender and September approached, pitching coach Mike Maddux and Shildt orchestrated a pitching plan that would manipulate assignments around matchups and off days. Twice they’ve inserted a sixth starter. Once they flip-flopped John Gant and Mikolas to get Mikolas an extra day off. A recent move makes it possible for Mikolas to miss the Brewers, against whom he has a 4.01 ERA. Four of the eight homers Mikolas has allowed this year to teams with winning records have come from Brewers. Instead, he’s lined up to face the Cubs — should that season-ending series mean something.
Maddux “has experience of what that looks like,” Shildt said. “He’s been a pitching coach for teams that have gone to the World Series and been in the playoffs. It’s not new to him. He knows how to pace guys through a season and make sure they’re fresh.”
Mikolas spent the previous three seasons in Japan, where the schedule can give a starter five, six or even seven days between starts. There are days when his team played, and he did not go to the ballpark for rest. The majors offer a different schedule, one with more travel and less days between starts. Mikolas mentioned a few recent starts where he was “unlucky” as well as out early, and all of that snapped back Tuesday.
He had seven strikeouts in the game, and he completed at least one with four different pitches. His threw some of his “best sliders of the year,” he said. He got a whiff on a changeup, another on a burrowing curve in the dirt, and another on his fastball.
Before the game unspooled with bullpen ruptures on both sides, Mikolas benefited from a lead provided by a shoulder that feels healthier, and his own shoulder that feels ready.
“They want us all to be fresh,” Mikolas said. “We’ve got mojo on our side. So why not keep it? Stay strong. Let’s stay fresh and keep this thing rolling.”