Like a slew of pitchers on the Cardinals’ roster, right-hander John Gant wants to be a starter in 2021. He’s stretching out as such, being given every opportunity to pitch his way into the rotation during Spring Training.
Though Friday's 7-6 Cardinals loss was his first official start of Grapefruit League action, it was the second stop in Gant’s buildup tour along the east coast of Florida, after he pitched in long relief on Sunday. Results the second go-around were mixed: Gant’s first inning was rolled over after Alex Avila hit a three-run homer five batters into the game, continuing a spell of Cards starters failing to make it out of the opening frame.
But Gant came back out for the second, needing just five pitches to retire the side, and he returned for the third frame before recording two outs and having an RBI double end his night. All told: four hits, four earned runs, two walks, one strikeout.
“Definitely room for improvement,” Gant said. “I was very non-competitive with my offspeed pitches today. I felt like I had a pretty good heater, but it takes more than a pretty good heater to get it done. Almost every offspeed pitch I threw was pretty noncompetitive, either bouncing or a foot outside on those curveballs.”
“He's a smart enough guy to understand how to pitch when everything's not working and figures out a way to get it back as the game goes,” said manager Mike Shildt.
Gant’s craftiness is what makes him an intriguing option for the Cardinals’ rotation, even though he hasn’t made a big league start since 2018.
Should Gant make the club as a starter, it’ll likely come as the Cardinals’ fifth, with Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Kwang Hyun Kim and Miles Mikolas entrenched at the top four spots (though Mikolas has been ailing with shoulder stiffness and is in line for a bullpen session on Sunday).
Gant does not possess the starting past that other candidates do, but his pitching in total speaks for itself. Since his last start, Gant owns a 3.43 ERA across 81 relief appearances.
That sort of track record gives the Cardinals creativity when it comes to slotting Gant into their pitching staff. He is well aware that the 2021 season could bring about unprecedented pitching tactics, given all the health uncertainties coming off the shortened '20 campaign, though he may not necessarily be eager to see them through.
From piggybacking starters to six-man rotations, clubs around Major League Baseball have teased novel pitching tactics for the upcoming year. The Cardinals themselves have been wary of such different ideas, at least publicly, but Gant could make for an ideal candidate in a piggyback role, given his ability to pitch multiple innings and success coming out of the bullpen.
If Gant could dictate his future, though, it’d look like contributing as Flaherty and Wainwright do atop the rotation.
“Just a baseball purist, I like to see a starter go out there and throw nine,” Gant said. “I feel like that's best-case scenario. Just have your starter get as deep as you can.”
Gant was penciled in for three innings and around 50 pitches on Friday, after he tossed a pair of scoreless innings, striking out three, behind Flaherty in the first game of the Grapefruit League slate. Gant felt aided by his fastball with zip, but let down by his offspeed pitches that failed to close out batters when ahead.
“Just not competitive, you know?” Gant said. “I don't think I threw one offspeed pitch that anybody swung and missed at, and I feel like usually that's a pretty big part of my game, throwing offspeed where I want to throw it. Just didn't really have the offspeed tonight. That's all there is to it, really.”
Gant is next slated to increase his workload, likely to about the 60-70 pitch range. With Alex Reyes, Carlos Martínez, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Johan Oviedo on a similar plan -- stretching out for a starting role or ready to contribute in the bullpen -- Gant’s ensuing starts will become more magnified. More than two years removed from his last big league start, his path to the rotation could be particularly treacherous.
“I feel like it's just game to game right now,” he said. “Anything could happen out there. Just got to dial it in for next time.”