MIAMI — As happy as Jordan Hicks was about making the first start of his MLB career and allowing only two hits over three innings on Thursday, the Cardinals right-hander was equally perturbed with himself for issuing walks in the first and second innings that required him to work out of trouble.
“I liked a lot of it, and the only thing I didn’t like were the walks,” said Hicks, a four-year big league veteran who had previously made 114 relief appearances. “My stuff is too good to be walking people out there. I’ve just got to get locked in and avoid the walks.”
Hicks, he of the 105.1 mph and 104.3 mph fastballs early in his career, was one of the lone bright spots on a night when Pablo López befuddled Cardinals hitters with his changeup and allowed the Marlins to win, 5-0. In striking out 13 times — nine of them by Lopez — St. Louis’ eight-game winning streak over Miami came to an end. Still, the Cards have won 12 of their past 15 games in Miami over the past five years.
There was plenty of frustration for the Cardinals, who have scored only two runs over their past 22 innings dating back to Tuesday. On Thursday, Albert Pujols whiffed three times, Harrison Bader slammed his helmet to the turf and later snapped a bat over his knee and struggling leadoff hitter Dylan Carlson angrily fired his bat to the dirt late in the game. St. Louis mustered only three hits in seven innings off López, who recorded four of his first five strikeouts on diving changeups.
“Guys were sitting on it, and they still had a tough time,” said Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, whose team has either won or split all four of its series. “It was a couple of miles per hour slower than he usually throws it, and he located it well.”
There was nothing slow about the way the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Hicks threw the ball. Of his 46 pitches, 14 of them topped 100-plus mph. Of course, that’s down from earlier in his career, when Hicks threw 941 of his first 1,997 pitches at 100 mph or faster (47.1 percent). In three outings this season — two out of the bullpen when starting chances were pushed back because of rain — Hicks has thrown 24 of his 108 pitches at 100 mph or faster (22.2 percent).
Hicks’ desire to dial back the speed is by design. His stellar start to the 2019 season was cut short by Tommy John surgery. A Type 1 diabetic, he opted out of the ’20 season shortened by the pandemic. And he slightly reinjured his elbow in 10 appearances last season. The Cardinals limited Hicks’ outing to three innings on Thursday, as he is still working to build up his arm strength.
Hicks proved he can still reach back and use velocity to get the type of results he needs. After a one-out walk to Garrett Cooper in the first, Hicks used a 100.8 mph sinking fastball to get Jorge Soler to ground into an inning-ending double play. In the second, when Hicks walked Jesús Sánchez, he got out of another jam by using a 100.1 mph fastball to get Jacob Stallings to ground into another double play. That success with his fastball, Hicks said, only made the two walks more infuriating.
“I felt strong, and I felt like I could go more, and I came in and did my conditioning so I could treat it like I pitched five or six innings,” Hicks said. “My bread and butter is getting those ground balls, especially after an uncompetitive walk. That’s my go-to — getting ground balls. Any time you give somebody a free bag, it’s not the best feeling, but I’ll build off it, try to get ahead in the count and put them away next time.”
Still without 2019 and ’20 Opening Day starter Jack Flaherty (right shoulder inflammation), the Cardinals are experimenting with Hicks as their No. 5 starter. The potential for a big reward is there because of the arm talent the Texas native possesses. However, Marmol stressed the only reason St. Louis can start Hicks — a former bullpen asset — is because of the growth of setup man Ryan Helsley. In four scoreless innings, Helsley has allowed one hit while striking out eight.
“It makes that move easier,” Marmol said. “When you think about getting to our back end [of the bullpen], that’s the spot where Helsley or Hicks would traditionally be used in the seventh inning. So having Helsley step up allows us to make the move.”