Once he shook the soreness and limits out of his left arm and tried to race the calendar last fall to make a return to the Cardinals, Austin Gomber searched for somewhere, anywhere he could get in a game.
Now it’s the Cardinals turn to figure how to fit him in.
Gomber and righthander Daniel Ponce de Leon have started summer where they finished spring — as hard for the Cardinals to ignore as it is to find them a specific role on the staff. With four superb innings Tuesday night at Busch Stadium in an intrasquad game, Gomber, like Ponce de Leon, continues to prep for the season as a starter. But with a rotation that already has one more candidate than it has spots, barring any injuries, Gomber and Ponce de Leon are bullpen-bound to start the regular season.
That puts the onus on the Cardinals to find a way to maximize their usage in this brief season and not have two early performers collect dust in the limbo between starter and closer.
“It’s obviously exciting any time you feel like you could be in a position to help the team win games,” Gomber said. “I think with everybody just being flexible and being versatile is what this season is going to be about. It’s going to be about guys doing stuff that they typically haven’t done in the past. This season is going to be played in a different way than it has been in the past. As long as you’re present and ready to do everything, knowing every day could look completely different.”
Gomber got eight innings into his spring bid for the big-league bullpen, and they likely positioned him to be Class AAA Memphis’ opening day starter. The expanded roster for opening day means the Cardinals will carry 16 or 17 pitchers into the first two weeks of the season, and that frees up a spot for Gomber. His role — TBD.
Opposite Jack Flaherty on Tuesday, Gomber showed the efficiency asked of starters, the control required of middle relievers, and the swing-and-miss stuff of a late-inning lefty.
He retired the first 11 batters he faced, struck out four of them, and finished 12 outs on 55 pitches. Ten of the 14 batters he faced started behind in the count, 0-1. The penultimate hitter he faced got the first hit against him, and before that only one player got the ball to the outfield. Seven of the nine balls put in play against him did not leave the infield. It echoed, from the left and with breaking balls, what Ponce de Leon has done from the right with his fastballs.
“We have a bunch of guys who want to compete and be on this team and want big roles,” manager Mike Shildt said. “I love that. We talked to some of the young guys about wanting more. It’s healthy to want more. I love the mentality, and I do think that Ponce and Austin, like a lot of players, they do want more.”
Gomber appeared poised for more as the Cardinals left the 2018 season. He was the lefthanded complement to Flaherty’s breakout August as the Cardinals, under Shildt, made a late, strong push for a playoff berth. Combined, Flaherty and Gomber, two starters beckoned as reinforcements from Memphis, went 9-0 with a 1.77 ERA. The Cardinals won all 12 of the games they appeared in during August 2018, and that included seven by Gomber. He was 5-0 with a 2.38 ERA.
The next spring, as his longtime minor-league roommate, Flaherty, asserted his place in the Cardinals’ rotation, Gomber returned to Memphis and then vanished onto the injured list.
A soreness in his shoulder and irritation rippling through his biceps was as hard for the team to get a handle on as it was for Gomber with his pitches.
“I know how it was for him — it was tough,” Flaherty said. “We talked the whole way through it. He was such a big part of August, and we go way back. He continued to work. He continued to battle — to do what he could to get back. He was motivated coming into this year.”
Gomber tried to force his return a few months earlier as he made three appearances for Class AA Springfield on a rehab assignment. He was building his arm strength and seeking a Cardinals affiliate headed to the playoffs when — none did. That ended his rehab assignment before he could get to a point to audition for a spot with the Cardinals in late September or October. But with health he didn’t have all summer, he got to work in winter. With help from the Cardinals, Flaherty, and others he dug into the analytics. A cutter he learned from Jason Isringhausen in 2018 had morphed into a slider in 2019, and it was time to commit.
“We landed on the true slider,” he said.
That invited the next question.
“How do I throw a true slider?” he said.
He brought the answer to spring training, and flaunted it Tuesday night at Busch. With a classic 12-to-6 curveball to pair with the slider, Gomber had a vertical breaking ball to show hitters and then what Flaherty called his “east-west” pitch. Gomber had success with it against righthanders who swung over it, and switch-hitter Tommy Edman battled his way back in the count before taking an 80.9-mph slider for a called strike three. The pitch didn’t drop, it veered.
“It’s fun to pitch, to create sequences, to create looks,” Gomber said. “These guys have seen a lot of me in the past, but they haven’t seen that version of me. It’s almost like creating new looks. I know the pitch is good. Now it’s how do I balance? When do I throw a curveball? When do I throw a slider? Which one works in the right spots?”
Sounds like same question Shildt and his pitching coaches are asking about Gomber and Ponce de Leon and changeup-rider John Gant.
They’ve seen them pitch well.
Now it’s how do they balance them. When do they throw the lefty for a few innings? When do they throw the power righty for one?
Which one works in the right spots?
“The good news is that guys who can pitch you can put them anywhere,” Shildt said. “We’ve got guys who accept the role to pitch and can pitch anywhere. Would they like to be in a certain other situation — maybe to start? We’ve got five starters. But you put guys who can pitch (somewhere). It’s still an open competition and that’s why we’re here to figure it out.”