CINCINNATI — As he prepared to catch Thursday’s start with Miles Mikolas, Andrew Knizner studied Cincinnati’s lineup, watched film, and scrutinized their swings all week, trying to overlay what he saw them do against other pitchers onto what he knew Mikolas could do to them.
Knizner visualized the game, the reaction to Mikolas’ pitches, and long about Wednesday had an inkling of this start was “going to go well, a really good game,” he said.
It would be the start Mikolas wanted.
It had to be because of what the Cardinals needed.
With three All-Stars in the dugout nowhere near their cleats and getting a day off from the middle of the lineup, the Cardinals’ most recent All-Star pitcher hoisted the team upon his shoulder and carried it to a series split in Cincinnati. Mikolas threw seven shutout innings before a scoreless game in the eighth bloomed into a 2-1 victory Thursday afternoon at Great American Ball Park. Mikolas’ outing asked for only two innings from the bullpen and not a single swing from Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, or Willson Contreras as the Cardinals head to Cleveland, the final Ohio stop on their 19-day, 19-game hike.
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“That is what it’s supposed to look like, right there,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “Take the ball. Go out there with ‘I want to finish this game.’ He shoved. You come here. You get on the mound. And you throw up zeroes. We needed it, and that’s what he did.”
Former Cardinals’ first-round pick Luke Weaver, a piece the Cardinals sent to Arizona in the Goldschmidt trade, had his finest outing as a starter in several years, matching Mikolas zero for zero. He threw six scoreless, and the deadlock broke in the eighth. Two wild pitches, two hits, and a stolen base were the ingredients of the Cardinals’ rally, but what brought it to a boil was Nolan Gorman’s two-out RBI double. Nineteen of Gorman’s 40 RBIs are from the eighth inning or later.
Gorman then stole third so that he could come home on a wild pitch for a 2-0 lead and score what proved to be the game’s winning run.
Giovanny Gallegos allowed a run and the potential tying run on base before securing his fifth save of the season and fourth consecutive win for the Cardinals with Mikolas at starter. If the Cardinals did not score in the top of the eighth inning, Mikolas, at 95 pitches, was headed back out for the bottom of the inning, to keep shoving zeroes.
By then, Mikolas (3-1) had any of his pitches he needed at his fingertips.
“It’s always fun calling his games because he can throw any pitch in any count,” Knizner said. “You never know what he’s going to do with the ball either. The curveball is so much different than the slider, which is different than the four-seam sinker to both sides. Now, he’s got that split change. It’s definitely a tough at-bat. He has the stuff to beat you with and he also has that velo to beat you with.”
That makes him a bit of a blend — flashes of modern power with a throwback feel.
Asked Thursday if he’d accept the description usually reserved from lower-velocity pitchers or wily lefties and call himself “crafty,” Mikolas said he has a friend in Florida who already does. Except, he’s crafty in the mid-90s, not the late-80s.
“I’ll be crafty,” he said. “If crafty gets me outs.”
He wasn’t doing much of either early in the season as he emerged from a spring training schedule overwritten by the World Baseball Classic. Marmol believes that the unusual schedule and sporadic use of Mikolas by Team USA meant his first few starts of the regular season were closer to spring starts. He was getting that March feel for pitches, but in April, Mikolas allowed 16 runs and 29 hits in his first 14 1/3 innings. Mikolas said he did not want to “scapegoat” the tournament when he could take the blame. He lacked command of his fastball.
So, he went to work on finding it.
During bullpen sessions, Mikolas stretched string along the bottom part of the strike zone to use it as a target, strumming it with fastballs and changeups and sinkers. He realized that he could hit the mark in practice, but the adrenaline jolt of games had pitches rising. Mikolas adjusted the string, started aiming lower in his bullpen sessions, and that translated to pitches like he landed Thursday. Low. In the zone. Swung over. Or, grounded out. Mikolas got seven groundouts and five strikeouts, and three of his five flyouts were caught by infielders.
What was true of the season was true of his start as he felt he didn’t quite have the fastball for a few innings.
“It feels like I really didn’t wake up and find my better fastball till about the third inning,” Mikolas said. “The 12:30 games will get you. Sometimes you forget these early games — how much effort you need to throw a good fastball.
“At my best, I’m a pitcher,” he continued. “Change speeds. In. Out. Up. Down. Any pitch, any count. I play with the fastball. I had some fastballs around 89 and some up to 95. So, I’m sinking it. I’m cutting it. I’m pitching. I’m out there pitching.”
Mikolas threw five different pitches Thursday and not one of them more than 30 times. He landed his fastball at 94.6 mph and 89.0 mph. His curveball dropped to 70.1 mph, a full 13 mph slower than his average slider and his average changeup.
When the Reds opened the sixth inning with back-to-back singles to get a runner to third, Mikolas — with help from his defense — neutralized the inning with back-to-back outs on his sinker and an 86.8-mph slider to finish the inning.
“And I’ve seen him run (the fastball) up to 97 mph before, easy,” Knizner said. “He’s got 97 in the tank whenever he wants it. And I’m sure if (coaches) let him get a little more crafty, he’d be throwing some different arm angles, too. Drop in a knuckleball every now and then.”
Mikolas watched over the past week as some abbreviated starts stretched the bullpen to cover more innings and, for a few days, cast young starter Matthew Liberatore as a long reliever, if needed. Mikolas, an All-Star last summer, saw the Cardinals’ lineup the night before and the absence of the three highest-paid hitters. It didn’t tell him anything he did not already know about the wear of the schedule and the value of a second consecutive seven-inning outing or the necessity of a quality start.
It also didn’t ask of him anything more than his role already does.
“I look at that as that’s my job every time out,” Mikolas said. “Being in the top of the rotation, an older guy, something I’ve prided myself on is having big games when we’re struggling, sometimes having a big game when the bullpen is running thin or we’re resting guys. That’s my job. ... You’re out there to eat up as many innings as you can, put as many zeroes on the board, and give your team a chance to win, whether that’s 8-6 or 2-1.
“Your job is to put them on your back.”
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