Cards find a closer in Hicks, but seek a setup man

June 29th, 2023

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

In a classic case of having more questions than answers, the Cardinals bullpen sprung another leak late Wednesday … just as they seemed to have figured out their closer situation for the foreseeable future.

The Cardinals, weathering the absence of 2022 All-Star closer for the first three weeks of what looks to be a six-week absence, have seen  lock down the ninth inning by closing out five wins in five tries over an 11-day span. Hicks, the reliever with the 104-mph stuff who struggled so badly with his command and confidence early in the season that he once threw seven straight changeups to Andrew McCutchen, has suddenly been unhittable by flashing some of the filthiest stuff in all of baseball. Those were Hicks' first saves since 2019, after missing much of 2019 and 2021 with arm injuries and a COVID opt-out season in 2020.

Now, about the eighth inning …

On Wednesday, just as the Cardinals were on the precipice of their second straight win over the Astros, struggling reliever  squandered a two-run lead by surrendering a two-strike, three-run home run to Jose Altuve. As if allowing a single, a walk and a three-run home run wasn’t indication enough that Gallegos didn’t have his good slider -- an all-too-common occurrence this season -- the Cardinals left the former closer in the game to later surrender a ground-rule double to Kyle Tucker and a home run to Jose Abreu.

In efforts to identify the culprit for the franchise’s worst start in 50 years, there have been plenty of fingers pointed at the Cardinals spotty starting pitching and their oddly hot-and-cold offense. However, a bullpen that has already blown 16 saves has played a major role, too. Consider that the bullpen blew just 17 games all last season while winning the NL Central.

This season, the Cardinals have had far too many losses like Wednesday. Gallegos, who allowed six home runs in 2022, has given up seven home runs this season. He’s surrendered multiple home runs three times, something only six other relievers in Cardinals’ history have done in a season. 

Because they have few options, the Cardinals will likely remain patient with Gallegos and hope he can rediscover the slider. The Redbirds took a similar tact early in the season with Hicks, who blew a save in March and had a 5.23 ERA in 11 games in April. Since then, however, Hicks was been much improved in May (2.38 ERA in nine appearances) and June (3.38 ERA and five saves in five chances).

“The initial struggle was getting adjusted to the new rules and building a routine within my throwing and having intent with every single throw and not just going out there and throwing,” said Hicks, whose strikeout rate of 34.7 percent ranks in the top five percent in all of baseball, per Baseball Savant. “That’s a big factor in helping me control the [strike] zone.”   

Hicks is now a solution at the back end of games for the Cardinals. But as has been the case so often, just as soon as the Redbirds get one issue resolved, three more tend to pop up all around them.

Again, more questions than answers.