Jordan Hicks did not need 22 pitches to face just one batter in his second outing of spring. That’s the first takeaway from what became a 4-4 Grapefruit League tie with the Astros at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Wednesday. But results, at least on paper, were mixed.
Hicks entered in relief in the sixth inning after Adam Wainwright and Angel Rondón combined for five innings of two-run ball. His outing began auspiciously, sandwiching a walk to Kyle Tucker with groundouts from Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel.
But it was in that groundout to Gurriel — where Hicks bobbled the comebacker, but impressively recovered to tag out the Astros’ first baseman by taking a body check along the first-base line — that tides turned.
Hicks bobbled another ball in the next at-bat, flicking a comebacker from Abraham Toro off his glove twice and into foul territory for no play at first, allowing Tucker to score from second. Hicks proceeded to walk Myles Straw and plunk Martín Maldonado, ending his night before right-hander Jesus Cruz escaped the bases-loaded jam.
“I think it’s just getting back into competition in over a year,” manager Mike Shildt said in explaining some of those literal stumbles. “… You get out of Spring Training [some of the things] that he hadn’t done in a period of time now.”
Hicks has been lauded for his unrivaled athleticism over his career, part of the PFP championship team in the first week of camp. So, call Wednesday just one step back toward full comfort on the mound.
All told, it was a positive night for Hicks in that he was able to show his repertoire to a slew of Astros batters instead of his day ending after that historic battle with the Mets’ Luis Guillorme on Sunday, as epic as it may have been.
“I thought it was a fantastic outing,” Shildt said. “Ton of soft contact, around the plate again. I was really, really, really pleased with Jordan.”
The Cardinals will wait to decide how they utilize Hicks at the outset of the season. They want to see how he performs over the remainder of Spring Training — his first contests since he underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2019 and opted out of the ’20 season as a high-risk individual (Type 1 diabetes).
What gives St. Louis confidence about not rushing him back into the closer role is its abundance of high-leverage arms. Giovanny Gallegos, Andrew Miller and Alex Reyes all have closing experience, with the latter showing an elite repertoire of pitches this spring, sitting down all but two of the 17 batters he’s faced with ease.
Physically, Hicks is back to his old self, without much in the way of concern how he comes out of each outing.
“I don’t look at him as being inhabited once he reaches game status,” Shildt said.
Before he ran into some traffic and thereby trouble in the fourth inning on Wednesday, Adam Wainwright had 12 innings on his ledger this spring: two hits, one run, one walk, 12 strikeouts. The Cardinals’ “bulldog,” as his teammates call him, has some wondering this spring if he’s indeed set to turn 40 this August as opposed to 30.
With starting-pitcher health being pushed to the limit early at Cardinals camp, as Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim are ailing just two weeks before Opening Day, Wainwright’s role will be crucial this season. It’s a similar role he took through the difficult 2020 season, leading the staff with 10 starts and a 3.15 ERA.
Some of that traffic on Wednesday was probably beneficial, Shildt said.
“More the same of Waino. He got tested a little bit more tonight, which is probably good to get out there and get out of the stretch more,” the manager said. “But vintage Waino, he makes pitches when he has to.”
Letters from the back field
Along with Nolan Gorman getting his first game action at second base during a simulated game on Tuesday’s off-day, Jack Flaherty built up to 83 pitches across five innings. He was bit by the long ball, allowing a trio of homers, including two to Paul Goldschmidt — who also homered against the Astros on Wednesday — and one to Paul DeJong.
Johan Oviedo pitched the bulk against Flaherty, going three innings and building up to 43 pitches — allowing two runs via a homer to Tyler Heineman — as he eyes one of the open rotation spots. As it stands, right-handers John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon appear to hold the keys to those final spots behind Flaherty, Wainwright and Carlos Martínez, while Kim hopes to return by Opening Day. Mikolas is ruled out.
“I just want to be ready for whatever happens, wherever the team needs me,” said Oviedo, the club’s No. 10 prospect who could slot into the bullpen if he misses out on the rotation. “I’ll be there.”