LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. • What started in January on a mound at Dallas Baptist University has continued this spring and been part of the reason for Jordan Hicks’ few and targeted appearances in Grapefruit League play.
Twice in the offseason pitching coach Mike Maddux hosted Hicks for private bullpen sessions at the Dallas-area school to help simplify the righthander’s mechanics. Hicks moved his hands down toward his waist, shortened the distance his hand travels as it swings down and started scrubbing out any of the hints he was giving hitters. Already the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball, Hicks, 22, worked with Maddux to assure streamlined mechanics didn’t lessen his velocity.
“The idea is to gain,” Maddux said Tuesday. “Simple is better. This is a complex game, so the simpler you can make things, the better. We’re not changing. We’re tuning.”
Hicks is scheduled to pitch an inning and make his third appearance of spring Wednesday. (Starter Jack Flaherty, for comparison, has already made four.) In his most recent appearance, eight days ago, Hicks struck out four Phillies in one inning because of a dropped third strike. He tickled the radar gun with a 103 mph sinker along with sporting a feel for his plunging sliders. Hicks has pitched two innings this spring in exhibition games and he’s struck out seven batters.
He’s yet to debut in a game the four-seam fastball he’s been workshopping.
The Cardinals advertised at the start of spring training an altered schedule for Hicks to save his innings for the regular season. But another goal was helping him polish the delivery and command that he and Maddux discussed and tested at Dallas Baptist University. He has been doing that in bullpen sessions and side sessions without the game situation. Manager Mike Shildt referred to it as “controlled work.”
Hicks came set with his hands away from his body last season, Maddux said, and the goal of the retooled start is to bring his hands closer and erase the extra movement.
“Less moving parts,” Maddux said. “This should help him with everything. Strong from the get-go, being in a strong position, and strong to the finish.”
BRAVES BRUISE MIKOLAS
With the twin goals of pushing his pitch count and tending to his spring success, Cardinals opening day starter Miles Mikolas went one for two. A swift, economical first inning gave way to five runs scored against Mikolas in the next five innings. The righthander started the sixth inning to push his pitch count closer to 80 pitches, but he did not retire any of the three batters he faced that inning.
The Braves jumped on his elevated pitches for two home runs, and six of the eight hits he allowed went for extra bases. Ronald Acuna Jr. finished three for three against Mikolas with a double and a homer. In each case, Mikolas tried to test the hitter with a fastball up in the zone and didn’t dial it up high enough.
His curveball, similarly, had elevation issues.
“It’s time to get stretched out a little bit,” Mikolas said. “Got to see some things that I need to sharpen up before the season starts. Got into a couple of good counts and wasn’t able to execute as well as I wanted to. So, I know where my work needs to be these last two weeks of spring.”
Mikolas has two more appearances scheduled in Florida before starting opening day at Milwaukee. His next appearance is likely to be on a back field instead of the main stadium so that he can pitch in a controlled setting with scripted situations as he pushes toward 100 pitches.
The Cardinals remain the lowest-scoring team in baseball this spring after being shut out for the second time in as many games against Atlanta. The Cardinals scattered six hits in Tuesday’s 5-0 loss and struck out 12 times, including five times on a called strike three. The lack of oomph in the offense, partially explained by the Cardinals’ spacious, wind-swept home ballpark at spring training, has been acute recently on the road, where they’ve scored one run in 18 innings. The Cardinals’ planned top four hitters in the lineup did not appear together in either game, and not one of the four played Tuesday.
Asked about the lack of production, Shildt referenced the “process” being implemented by hitting coach Jeff Albert and staff and adjustments to it.
“Saying you have zero concern sitting in this chair is never accurate,” Shildt said. “But I have way more confidence in where we are in the process. There’s a little bit of a learning curve of how we’re doing it, what we’re thinking, and application to get where you want to go. I’m comfortable we’re going through the process in the right manner and in a timely manner. In reality, there are a lot of guys that we expect to get it – they are getting it.”
Scheduled to pitch multiple innings Tuesday, John Gant handled only one and retired all three batters he faced. That will force a “reboot” of his schedule, Shildt said, to keep Gant progressing on a starter’s program so that he has arm strength, should he fend off Dakota Hudson and others for that role. … Drew Robinson and Yairo Munoz, two utility fielders dueling for a spot on the bench, exchanged sharp plays in the field and doubles vs. Atlanta. “Healthy competition,” Shildt said. … Yadier Molina requested a trip to the Orlando area, where he annually draws a crowd of fans to Disney’s ballpark, and singled twice. … Lefty Tommy Layne, a St. Louis native, entered with two runners on base and a mess to clean up and retired both batters he faced Tuesday. In six innings this spring, he’s allowed four runs on seven hits, two hit batters and three walks, and he’s struck out eight.