ST. LOUIS -- There was some muddiness to be ironed out when the Cardinals acquired Jon Lester and J.A. Happ at the Trade Deadline, such as why they conceded younger players with far more control for a pair of pitchers with ERAs north of 5.00.
Saturday night was an example of why.
Jake Woodford, in his fourth Major League start, was bounced around for seven runs (five earned) in just three innings amid an 8-1 loss to the Twins at Busch Stadium. It may be Woodford’s last start in the Majors for some time; Lester and Happ shape up the rotation to five healthy arms, and the pending returns of Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas in August simply tighten the squeeze.
That’s by design. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak said as much on Friday: The Cardinals value arms like Woodford and Johan Oviedo, but they want them to develop in the Minors -- outside the “pressure cooker” of the Major League haze. The innings will now transfer to a suddenly veteran-laden rotation that they hope can find some rebounds in the final two months of the season.
“Guys are going to give up runs, it’s the ones who can stay away from the crooked numbers,” said manager Mike Shildt. “There's a learned behavior with what that looks like. I feel like Ovie has done a better job of it more recently. It's just about, ‘OK, something happens: Refocus, make the next pitch, stay in the moment, make your next pitch.’ Because it happens fast, and if you're not in that moment making that decision, making that adjustment, next thing you know you got a crooked number and you're walking off the field.”
Woodford didn’t get much help on Saturday. The Cardinals were held next-to-dormant by rookie starter Bailey Ober and four Twins relievers, scratching across just one run in the fourth inning while striking out 14 times. Also not of help was the error the Cards' defense committed in the first inning, allowing the first two unearned runs to score.
But by the time Woodford allowed a three-run homer in a five-run third inning, his night was over shortly after. And this stretch in the Majors may soon find a similar fate.
“He was in the air a little bit, and that’s probably the biggest thing,” Shildt said. “He just wasn’t able to control counts. Just didn’t seem like he was able to get into sync.”
The Cardinals have featured 10 starters this season, and that number is set to blossom to 12 in the coming week. It’s a number that invites instability; the Cardinals have seen six of their 10 starters land on the injured list, including months-long stints at the current moment for Mikolas, Flaherty and Carlos Martínez.
The former two will return in August, bolstering the rotation with a duo that was hoped to be key for the duration of the season. In 2022 (and potentially in a relief role in ‘21) so will Dakota Hudson, a 16-game winner as a rookie in 2019 now in the latter stages of Tommy John recovery.
Before that comes, they hope stability finds the club once again in the form of two veteran pitchers with a combined 31 years of Major League experience. All told, the rotation -- with Lester expected to arrive in St. Louis on Sunday morning -- will feature 62 years of Major League pitching (plus 12 more by Kwang Hyun Kim in South Korea).
And then there’s Woodford, who was thrust into his first Major League start last season in an emergency setting and has bounced around from Triple-A to long relief in the Majors since. Now he’s coming off his first set of consecutive starts in the Majors, and though they may not be long-lived, the come with production the Cardinals hope is latent.
“Success comes with being comfortable when you're uncomfortable,” Shildt said. “That's one of the things that really is a hard thing to do at this level. You want guys to be comfortable, but the fact of the matter is, in high-level competition it's not a very comfortable thing consistently. You know you want to be able to get to a point where you are comfortable in those moments that aren't that aren't as easy for you. It's really how you want to do that when you get experiences.”