Mikolas draws Cards' Opening Day nod

Righty finished sixth in 2018 NL Cy Young Award vote

February 23rd, 2019

JUPITER, Fla. -- There was a sort of symmetry in ' assignment on Saturday, as his selection to start the club’s first Grapefruit League game marked the beginning of a tune-up that will culminate with him also throwing the first pitch of the Cardinals’ regular season.

Informed by the Cardinals that he had been selected as the team’s Opening Day starter earlier in the week, Mikolas kept the news a secret from everyone outside his family until Saturday, when manager Mike Shildt formally announced the club’s intentions. Mikolas followed by retiring all six batters he faced in what finished as an 11-1 rout of the Marlins at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium.

“Huge, huge honor to join a list of Cardinals Opening Day starters,” Mikolas said afterward. “I am very humbled by the experience.”

It’ll represent the second Opening Day start for Mikolas in three years, with the other coming during his final season pitching for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. That opportunity wasn’t so much earned as it was convenient. It fell on him because the ace of the Giants’ staff was still recovering from the World Baseball Classic.

Mikolas recalled earning the win, but added: “This is the one that counts.”

The assignment comes as no surprise, as Mikolas enters 2019 on the heels of a breakthrough season in which he finished sixth in the National League Cy Young Award vote. His 18 wins and .818 winning percentage led the league, and Mikolas paced all Cardinals starters with 200 2/3 innings pitched. He compiled an ERA of 2.83.

The 30-year-old right-hander will be just the third pitcher to start the club’s season opener in the last seven year. Adam Wainwright drew four straight Opening Day starts beginning in 2013, and Carlos Martinez earned the most recent two.

“It’s a recognition of last year,” Shildt said. “Completely well deserved. I’m really, really happy for him. It’s quite an honor, especially based on the staff that we have. He’s going to be our lead guy to start the season, and it’s well, well deserved.”

It also represents a remarkable ascension for a pitcher who, 12 months ago, was unsure how his transition back to the Majors would be after a three-year stint pitching in Japan. Signed to a two-year contract by the Cardinals, Mikolas allowed six earned runs in his first Grapefruit League appearance last February. His next time out, he was knocked around for four.

Mikolas opened Saturday’s start by throwing seven of his first 12 pitches for strikes en route to breezing through two scoreless frames.

“It’s good trying to pick up right where I left off last year, filling up the zone and doing what I do best,” Mikolas said. “I believe last Spring Training I was all over the place with everything. It’s good to kind of start on the right page.”

The schedule allows for Mikolas to make as many as five more Grapefruit League appearances before the Cardinals head north for their opener against the Brewers on March 28 at Miller Park, where he won both of his starts last year.

There’s also the chance Mikolas will arrive in Milwaukee with a new contract already completed. He and the Cardinals continue to negotiate an extension that would lock Mikolas up before becoming a free agent in the fall.

“I think to say a year ago that Mikolas would have been our Opening Day starter would have been a shock to everyone, but he pitched amazing last year,” Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch said. “He’s been a great influence in the clubhouse. He’s a happy guy to have around. It’s nice for him to get the Opening Day start today and a month from now.”