Whenever, however he was being used in a game or, in the past few months, throwing bullpens with catcher Yadier Molina in Florida, rookie Junior Fernandez referred to a note he and pitching coach Mike Maddux committed to paper and he committed to using as a compass.
It reminds him regardless of the situation, regardless of the opponent, and regardless of the spot in the game to pitch to his strengths.
“Now that I’m here I’m ready for everything,” Fernandez said Friday evening at Busch Stadium. “Here you have to be ready for everything — any role, any time they call, any time they say you’ve got to be ready, you’ve got the next guy. With the plan that I set up, it doesn’t matter who I face, doesn’t matter what inning I pitch. I’m always ready, and I come with the mindset that nobody can hit against me. Pitch with my strengths.”
The note gives him direction.
That should help in a shortened season that will start backward and inspire teams to consider reverse-engineering games from the bullpen forward. The 60-game sprint for the postseason starts with a dash of September in July. Rather than end the season with expanded rosters, clubs will begin that way — opening with a 30-man roster, as many as 17 pitchers, and handfuls of reasons to go sooner and more often to a deeper bullpen.
“It’s definitely more backwards than any of us are used to in our game,” manager Mike Shildt said. “But so are our circumstances. And we adjust and figure it out. I do feel like our ability to understand that we’ve got a bit more moving parts, with a more abbreviated spring training … (makes) sense and literally guys get their legs under them. … I feel like our approach is fairly aggressive. With more options, I could see the point of it, allowing for more aggressiveness knowing the next day you’re got protection.”
Added starter Adam Wainwright: “You could definitely make a case coming right out of the chute that every game, every single game matters more than it normally does. It really matters now. It’s almost like September baseball right away.”
After facing hitters for a second time since “Summer Camp” opened a week ago at Busch, Wainwright echoed a sentiment that brings the Cardinals’ socially distant clubhouse together — the team’s pitching. The Cardinals feel they can identify as many as seven or eight starting pitchers for the rotation, and while they may go with 16 or 17 pitches to start the season they’ll still have velocity and upside stashed at the alternate-site camp in Springfield, Mo.
Who they choose for the expanded roster is almost secondary to how they use what they have in the bullpen. The length that Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon give the Cardinals could allow them carve up the first two thirds of games and then turn to the lightning and lefties they have with rookies like Fernandez and Kodi Whitley to pair with John Gant, Tyler Webb, and Andrew Miller. Prospect Johan Oviedo, who will start Saturday’s intrasquad game opposite Carlos Martinez, offers another 98-mph option with a slider who is being readied to handle the innings of a starter.
“I think we will be able to pass the ball around,” Shildt said, quoting pitching coach Mike Maddux.
Wainwright used a term for his work the past few months that also fits.
“A great science fair experiment,” he said.
The Cardinals have as deep a pitching staff as any club in the National League Central, but also have a mix of acids and bases when it comes to pitches that give Shildt a different chemistry to utilize. On Friday night, Gant and Fernandez faced hitters in live batting practice — and that meant Gant’s plunging changeup was followed by Fernandez’s biting slider. The contrasts the Cardinals can show opponents grow from there.
During the sim game Thursday night, Shildt considered linking Dakota Hudson and Ponce de Leon so that one of the league’s top sinkerball pitchers was followed by Ponce de Leon and his elevated fastball. That’s a one-two, sink-rise, down-up combo the Cardinals could show opponents in their first two turns through the lineup to fiddle with eye levels. Genesis Cabrera remains absent from camp as he quarantines following a positive COVID-19 test, but when he returns he could bring his 98-mph sinker from the left side in after Wainwright’s curveball-cutter combo from the right. Miles Mikolas’ relentless pursuit of strikes from the right would allow Gomber’s mix of breaking pitches from the left to look that much different.
Shildt has a zig to follow every zag, a left for every Wainwright.
“That’s a real advantage. It’s inherently an advantage,” Shildt said. “Guys present different looks and have different ways that they can compete and beat the other team. It’s a mindset of how these guys can complement and give different looks. So it is nice — the depth is important, but also the different skill sets are an added bonus.”
Those skill sets also include the accordion relievers like Gant and Ponce de Leon – each of whom has experience as a starter lugging innings and as a reliever quieting them.
Gant called it “uncharted territory” with the shortened season and the likelihood teams will be more assertive in games. It’s possible some series turn upside down with relievers pitching more innings than starters. Gant echoed the note Fernandez keeps with about “being ready for any situation” and being open to pitch “at the end of the game, great. If that’s at the beginning of the game, great. If that is in the middle of the game, great.”
More than just the roster numbers will be enhanced to start this season — dropping from 30 to 28 after two weeks and then 26 for the final month of the season. The gravity of games could be, too. Each game this season is worth almost three in a 162-game schedule. That inflates the value of a lead, too, meaning an October-like approach that shifts from holding a lead late to coming in earlier and holding a lead longer.
An expanded roster and the flexibility of the bullpen gives the Cardinals the manpower to do that.
“We’re going to manage to win games. We always do,” Shildt said. “I do get the math. It’s relative, too, right? Candidly, at this level, any game you manage you’re managing to win that game. We may have to get to the end a little bit different relative to guys being built up but the fact of the matter is we’re getting to the end with a sense of urgency every day.”