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Cards hurler Miller focused on taking next step

Righty, impressive in rookie season in 2013, adding to arsenal this spring @philgrogers

JUPITER, Fla. -- It is March, not October. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia were elsewhere in Florida, otherwise occupied.

But still there was a special feeling to Wednesday's unofficial World Series rematch. This was not business as usual in the Grapefruit League, and the Cardinals' Sheby Miller knew it as soon as he gave up a leadoff home run to the Red Sox's Daniel Nava.

"I was surprised," Miller said. "I really didn't see too many Boston fans there, but when I gave up the home run, it was pretty loud. I wouldn't say, really, World Series atmosphere, but a lot of people from up north come down here to get away from that cold, and, obviously, Boston has really good fans."

As an afterthought, Miller threw in a few more words. "Not better than ours," he said.

In a St. Louis-Boston debate, you can disagree about who has the better fan base. But Miller demonstrated one disagreement you cannot have.

You cannot argue about the deepest collection of pitchers, especially homegrown pitchers.

There are good arms all over baseball, with notable clusters of young guns with the Athletics, Mets, Pirates, Marlins, Reds and Mariners. But nobody's got more pitching than the Cardinals, who are the envy of 29 other teams. They had so much pitching they went to the 2013 World Series with a future ace as the just-in-case guy in the bullpen.

Miller, then 22, won 15 games and had a 1.21 WHIP as a rookie (35th in the Majors, and better than every teammate not named Adam Wainwright), and that might have been the tip of the iceberg. On Wednesday, he positively blew away a stripped-down Red Sox lineup after the Nava home run, retiring eight batters in a row. Five of them were on strikeouts.

"He was good, man," Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts said. "He throws pretty hard. I don't know why he wasn't pitching in the World Series. But he's good, man."

The Cards didn't have a Strasburgian pitch limit for Miller last season, when he worked only 173 1/3 innings in his 31 starts. He was simply squeezed out of the postseason rotation by the late-emerging Michael Wacha, who grabbed a spot alongside Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly for the National League Division Series against Pittsburgh, and held onto it.

There are still rumors going around that Miller was battling a sore shoulder, but everyone has denied it, including Miller. He says he would have liked to have pitched in October, but what's a guy to do?

"The biggest thing was when the postseason came, it was kind of weird," Miller said during the Cardinals' 8-6 victory Wednesday. "We had so many guys who were doing so well, our starters were Waino and Wacha, Lance and Joe, [and they] were pitching well. Our bullpen was doing good. We got to the World Series. We got deep into the World Series. There's not much you can really do except root your team on."

Miller, a first-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, made a one-inning relief appearance in the NLDS but then wasn't needed again. It's a tiresome subject for Cards manager Mike Matheny, who navigated his way through a rare too-much-pitching dilemma.

"We've been through it 1,000 times," Matheny said. "We have to go with who we think will be the best for us on any particular day. We went into that Series trying to give ourselves the best chance, and we had a lot of guys throwing the ball well. We put [Miller] into a situation where he could come in as a long reliever, and fortunately, we didn't need it. It got to the point where he hadn't been used in a while, but that was meaning our team was doing pretty well."

Miller has the ability to dominate with two pitches -- his fastball (93.5 mph average last year, with a high of 98) and a curveball. He threw his fastball 73 percent of the time, and a fastball or a curve 92 percent of the time. But here's some bad news for the NL: Miller's cutter is becoming an effective third pitch and could soon be a weapon. He used it to strike out Bogaerts.

"I kind of had it last year a little bit, but I think it's further along now than it was last year," Miller said. "I'm still kind of trying to feel the exact right feel for it. That one was kind of how we want the results to be."

Miller's curveball was also good in his 35-pitch outing Wednesday. He says he feels better about his offspeed pitches now than he did last spring -- another bad sign for the NL.

Miller's primary goal for 2014 is to work more innings. He says 200 innings is a reasonable goal, but says he'd like to throw even more.

"Last year, there'd be times I'd be through five innings [at] 95 pitches, sometimes 100, and I'd get pulled out of the game," Miller said. "As a starting pitcher, depending on how it is, that's not really what you expect. I [don't] want to be the guy who goes out there and throws five innings every time."

What Miller wants is to become like Wainwright, with a better fastball. But please understand those are my words, not his. No Cardinals pitcher would infringe on Wainwright's turf. He's earned too much respect in the clubhouse.

"Who I try to be like is Waino," Miller said. "You see him, if he's not going to throw a complete game, he's going to go seven or eight, rarely does he go six or five innings. Luckily we have somebody on our staff who we try to take after, follow in his footsteps. I learn something from him almost every single day."

Even with left-hander Jaime Garcia continuing to battle shoulder problems, the Cards currently have one more starting pitcher than they need. Miller insists he doesn't feel sure about even having a spot in the rotation, but most feel that it will be the electrifying Carlos Martinez or Kelly squeezed out of the rotation if all six stay healthy for the season-opening trip to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

"Nothing's guaranteed here," Miller said.

Too much pitching? That can be inconvenient for pitchers, as Miller found out, but it's a formula to success for a franchise.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

St. Louis Cardinals, Shelby Miller