On his way back from elbow surgery, Dakota Hudson was visiting Class AA Springfield to strengthen his arm so he could pitch deeper into games when he had a conversation with Andre Pallante that opened the young prospect’s mind to the value of pitching deeper into games.
Pallante was a budding hotshot, a velocity swashbuckler chasing zeroes, but rarely pitching beyond the fifth inning. He thought getting the most of his outings was measured in missed bats and blank innings, not orphaned innings left for the bullpen to handle. As John Smoltz had once told Adam Wainwright and Wainwright passed on to Hudson, Hudson told Pallante that a starter is the sum of his innings.
Don’t settle for five and dive.
Expect nine and thrive.
“I’ve always thought, oh, my job is to put up zeroes however the way you do it, and I never got deep into games,” Pallante said late Wednesday. “I can throw more strikes. I can get more outs. That was something (Hudson said) that clicked with me. I have always struggled with that. College, I never got deep into games. In high school, I barely got deep into games. This game is 90% mental, and when you have the mentality of I’m going as far as I can rather than I’m going to try to put up zeroes for five innings.
“I feel like it helped me be the best me I can be.”
Opposite a former Cardinals prospect who has come to personify the long-haul ace and asserted himself as one of the top pitchers in the National League, Pallante dueled Sandy Alcantara and pitched a career-high seven innings against Miami on Wednesday at Busch Stadium. He left the game with a one-run lead and six outs to get – exactly what the Cardinals wanted. The Marlins flipped the game in the ninth with the first home run of the season off reliever Ryan Helsley. Avisail Garcia’s two-run blast to center field carried Miami to a 4-3 victory, made a complete-game winner of Alcantara, and avoided a sweep.
The Marlins won a game in St. Louis for the first time in 1,105 days. The Cardinals slipped to 2-6 in games when they have a chance to sweep a series.
But within the loss was an increasing gain.
The only first-time big leaguer to start the year on the opening day roster for the Cardinals, Pallante began as a reliever and reaches July tightening his grip on a spot as a starter. What the Cardinals tried to do with Jordan Hicks and, more recently, Jack Flaherty – building pitch count on the fly – Pallante has accomplished, rewriting his role, and drawing on that advice from Hudson, with a twist. He authored back-to-back quality starts, all while raising his pitch count toward 100 and still reaching 97 mph with his fastball.
The right-handed rookie has an old-school style at a new-school speed.
“When you look at it, you’re debating once we get healthy, does he go back to the ‘pen and bridge you to the backend, or do you keep him in the rotation?” manager Oliver Marmol said. “He continues to throw well and show that he’s more than capable of being in that starting rotation and begin a legit dude for us. We’ll weigh our options once we’re healthy and figure out what’s best.”
After his talk with Hudson a year ago in the Double-A dugout, Pallante has focused on peppering the strike zone and challenging hitters with his fastball-slider mix and the occasional curveball. Seventeen of his 21 starts at Class AA fell short of six innings. He already has two starts that long in his short tenure in the rotation. Pallante illustrated how his approach changed to make that possible by, in a 0-0 count, looking for an out for expediency not a swing and miss to set up a strikeout.
Pallante got 13 outs on the ground in the game, none bigger than the double play he coaxed to regain control of the fifth inning. The first three batters of the inning reached against Pallante, two on groundball singles. He fell behind 2-0 with the bases loaded and then turned to his trusty fastball. Bryan De La Cruz chopped it into a double play that scored the Marlins’ second run and gave them a brief 2-1 lead, but opened an escape for Pallante.
He retired the next seven batters he faced, five on groundballs.
“Big deal not to let the game speed up on you,” Marmol said.
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to do as starters here,” Wainwright said. “All of that sounds good to me. He’s doing what we’re trying to do – and he’s got 97 mph at the end of the day. I’m having fun watching it, that’s for sure.”
Pallante kept pace with Alcantara, but Alcantara kept going, waiting for his teammates to catch up. Alcantara (8-3) pitched at least seven innings for the 10th consecutive start, and he got 17 groundouts. The game ended with the tying run in scoring position and Alcantara getting a double play to cinch the victory. He pointed to the dugout and manager Don Mattingly as he closed what he started.
That’s what Hudson was talking about.
That was the example provided by Alcantara.
“It’s an honor to be challenged with that,” Pallante said. “He’s a guy who a lot of guys here played with and they have a lot of respect for. It definitely makes me want to play up to that level.”
To become more expedient in games, Pallante has started over the past few weeks utilizing a sinker, just as Alcantara does. Pitching coach Mike Maddux urged him to add the pitch, especially as he began build pitch count and innings as a starter. Pallante threw 14 sinkers in his career-high 96 pitches Wednesday. That mixed with his four-seam fastball and its wily movement to give Pallante 10 outs on fastballs. The sinker got better as the game got later, just as his feel for the hitters continues to improve with each game.
For the first time since shifting to starter, Pallante had no pitch-count target, no minimum goal for his innings or pitches to reach.
He was going to go as long as his pitching deserved.
Heading into that breakpoint start, Maddux challenge Pallante to improve his scouting of the opposing batters. As a reliever and in the early stages of starting, Pallante adopted a “first level of preparation,” he said, where “I don’t want to be scared of anyone, so I go out there and pitch like I don’t have any idea who they are.” Maddux wanted Pallante to know who the Marlins were, everything about them – their preferences, their weakness. Pallante expanded his prep to include more video review, more detailed study on individual batters.
Marmol said Pallante was starting to show how it’s “more than just relying on (his) stuff; it’s exposing the opposition’s stuff.”
Through prep, Pallante saw another way to be efficient.
As he spoke late Wednesday, the sting of the ninth-inning loss apparent in all corners of the Cardinals’ clubhouse, Pallante sounded like the starter Hudson told him about.
He’s showing he can do more than pitch deep into game as a starter.
He’s making case he can pitch deeper into the season as one.
“Having him talk to me kind of reshaped my mentality, helped me find the zone more, trust myself,” Pallante said. “That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned, and I’m applying now.”
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