JUPITER, Fla. -- Doubters? Miles Mikolas yawns at them. High-upsiders? Mikolas drafts them. PFP championships? Mikolas wins them.
“I expect excellence out of my group,” Mikolas said, “and that’s exactly what we delivered.”
Mikolas’ battalion of Jordan Hicks, Tyler Webb, Matthew Liberatore and Tommy Parsons -- a group with “youth and some bounciness,” their captain said -- came out victorious on Wednesday in one of the Cardinals’ most anticipated days at Spring Training: the pitchers' fundamentals tournament, also known as PFP championships.
The competition is a field day of sorts, with six teams of five -- drafted by select captains -- rotating among stations and earning points based on how they perform at the basics of being a pitcher -- outside of the actual pitching.
The six stations are bunting practice, rag ball (fielding soft, bouncy baseballs on short hops in front of a wall), covering first base, making a play at home, popups to the mound and look-backs to the bases, and taking grounders with high spin.
The event serves as one of the Cardinals’ best team-building practices. Manager Mike Shildt said that last year’s tournament -- won by a self-described misfit bunch -- was a seminal bonding moment.
“I think that kind of stuff is invaluable,” Liberatore said. “Getting to gel with these guys a little bit in Spring Training and off the field, even doing stuff like we did today, makes it a lot easier to go out on the field and compete when that time comes.”
The other five teams, as drafted by the captains:
Team Adam Wainwright: Alex Reyes, Génesis Cabrera, Kodi Whitley, Johan Quezada
Team Jack Flaherty: Daniel Ponce de Leon, Roel Ramirez, Jesus Cruz, Zack Thompson
Team John Gant: Ryan Helsley, Seth Elledge, Griffin Roberts, Evan Kruczynski
Team Andrew Miller: Kwang Hyun Kim, Dakota Hudson, Connor Jones, Angel Rondón
Team Carlos Martínez: Junior Fernández, Jake Woodford, Garrett Williams, Austin Warner
So, Miles Mikolas, you just won a championship. What are you going to do now?
"Maybe a nice day on the boat with the family and try to get some of the boys on the boat,” he said. “I told our group going in, I said, ‘Let’s just not finish in last.’ … We were just trying to finish middle of the pack, and that nice, relaxed attitude is what helped us not fold under pressure.”
Returning from surgery to repair the flexor tendon in his right arm, an injury that kept him out of the 2020 season, Mikolas feels confident that he is at full strength heading into ’21. He was one of four pitchers who did not face live hitters on Tuesday, however, along with Hicks, Miller and Kim. Hicks opted out of the 2020 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in ‘19; veterans Kim and Miller are being given ample time to build up.
All were reported to have come out of their side sessions well, but Mikolas said that his first two Spring Training outings will likely come in backfield settings as opposed to Grapefruit League action as a way to control extraneous factors and pitch count. With a smaller set of games, the Cards have committed themselves to leaning into “B” games and intrasquads this spring.
Because of the pandemic, missing from Cardinals Spring Training are such mainstays as Ozzie Smith, Chris Carpenter, Jim Edmonds, Bruce Sutter and several other club legends. Their absences, coming after the passing of Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, has had a noticeable effect on the Cards’ overall feel in Jupiter.
“There's something missing in camp,” Shildt said. “Camp’s going great, but it's the first time in my 18 years in this organization that you haven't seen the rightful protection of our institutional knowledge in our Hall of Famers. Just being present, being involved in camp, is just a huge part of getting people to understand how to be good caretakers.
“We want to get in front of our players and our staff to make sure that we continue to uphold what they built. … I'm passionate about it, we miss them greatly. It's a special group that we’ve got to figure out different ways to keep included.”
Part of that will include smaller Zoom sessions with these legends, with Smith possibly connecting with infielders and Edmonds with outfielders virtually. It’s not what anyone had hoped for, but it’s a start.
“My hope is maybe at some point this year at Busch Stadium we can make [in-person instruction] happen,” Shildt said.