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Fire inside: Intensity fueling Mayers' success

'I'm here to dominate,' said righty, who is pitching his way into Cards' late-inning plans
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- Years ago, when Mike Matheny was the Cardinals' catcher and not the Cardinals' manager, he'd get into "go-arounds" with Matt Morris. The forced altercations came at Morris' request, meant to motivate the ace right-hander, to push him to a place where he could unleash his anger on the mound.

"It was kind of exhausting, to be honest," Matheny remembers. "We'd have confrontations in the middle of the game, and then afterwards he'd come up and kiss me."

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JUPITER, Fla. -- Years ago, when Mike Matheny was the Cardinals' catcher and not the Cardinals' manager, he'd get into "go-arounds" with Matt Morris. The forced altercations came at Morris' request, meant to motivate the ace right-hander, to push him to a place where he could unleash his anger on the mound.

"It was kind of exhausting, to be honest," Matheny remembers. "We'd have confrontations in the middle of the game, and then afterwards he'd come up and kiss me."

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Flash forward to last season, where similar charades were staged in the dugout at Triple-A Memphis between catcher Carson Kelly and right-hander Mike Mayers.

Mayers was converting to a reliever at the time, and by his own admission, struggling in a search for the intensity required for the role. Instead, he often took the mound with a psyche soaked in self doubt, unable to move past Major League struggles he worried would define him.

"I had to get him mad at me," Kelly said.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

This spring, that transformation appears complete. The hard-throwing Mayers has been one of the revelations of Cardinals camp, pushing triple digits with his fastball and holding opponents scoreless over nine total innings. Armed with two fewer pitches and a newfound intensity, the 26-year-old is pitching his way into St. Louis' long-term late-inning plans. Simply put, he's been lights-out. And he credits a fire now burning from within.

"No longer am I thinking every pitch needs to be in the perfect spot," Mayers said. "Now I'm on the mound thinking, 'This is what you're getting. Good luck.'"

"He looks more confident, more comfortable," Kelly said. "There were times last year when I caught him and said, 'Man, this guy is on it.' But it didn't translate."

Video: HOU@STL: Mayers fans four over 2 1/3 solid frames

Twice over the last two seasons, the Cardinals called Mayers up to the big league club. Twice the results were disappointing. His nine-run, 1 1/3-inning start vs. the Dodgers in 2016 ranks statistically among the worst debuts in MLB history. A brief relief appearance last August in Pittsburgh yielded four earned runs, sending Mayers back to Triple-A lugging a 19.80 ERA across 10 big league innings.

The struggles took time, and a trip to winter ball in the Dominican Republic, for Mayers to move beyond.

"Every time after that Dodgers start, I went up thinking, 'I have to be better this time, because of what happened last time,'" Mayers said. "I tried to do too much. I tried to make up for past failures, I tried to be better than I could be instead of just believing in what I have and understanding that it plays, and what has happened in the past is in the past."

Spring Training information

In winter ball, Mayers says he found a new identity rooted in confidence and conviction. Under the guidance of pitching coach Willie Blair, he scrapped his sinker and changeup. He vowed to focus on his four-seamer and slider, to throw his two best pitches exclusively and with maximum effort. He resolved to trust the Cardinals' faith in him was real. Despite his struggles, the club continuously kept Mayers protected on the 40-man roster.

"I had a talk with Mike [Matheny] in Pittsburgh, when I was pretty beat up," Mayers said. "Then at his Catch 22 [charity] dinner this winter, he told people the same thing he told me that day in his office: he believed in me, and I had to believe in myself. That was the biggest moment for me."

Mayers' remaining Minor League option means he likely begins the year in Triple-A Memphis. But if he pitches like he has this spring, he likely won't be there long. The righty turned heads when he entered a night game against Houston last week opposite Justin Verlander -- who he grew up admiring -- and threw harder.

Tweet from @JoeTrezz: Mike Mayers hit 99 mph on the stadium scoreboard tonight. He only threw 100 pitches in the big leagues last year. .@Statcast™ didn't track any above 95.5 mph. #STLCards

In all, he's struck out 10 batters without a walk over four high-octane appearances. Club officials gawk over his improved mound presence, and foresee a day his swing-and-miss stuff forces Mayers back to the big leagues, this time to stay.

"I'm not just here to be here," Mayers said. "I'm here to dominate."

Said Matheny: "St. Louis hasn't seen the type of pitcher he can be."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Mike Mayers