Hicks takes the 5th, will bring flame to rotation

April 7th, 2022

ST. LOUIS -- Jordan Hicks said no matter what he’s been doing since making his MLB debut in 2018 -- whether it was throwing a record-tying 105.1 mph out of the bullpen or rehabilitating from injury as he did much of the past two seasons -- he always thought of himself as a starting pitcher, and that’s where he wanted his future to be with the Cardinals.

Nearly four years after debuting in the bigs as a reliever, Hicks has the starting title he’s always dreamt about.

On the eve of Thursday’s Opening Day against the Pirates, Cards manager Oliver Marmol revealed that Hicks -- the team’s former closer who worked exclusively out of the bullpen in Spring Training -- will be their No. 5 starter. The 25-year-old, who has missed much of the past 2 1/2 seasons with right elbow injuries and a COVID opt-out, will follow Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz and Dakota Hudson in St. Louis' rotation. Hicks, for one, couldn’t be more excited about getting the ball on Tuesday against the Royals and Mike Matheny -- his first manager when he made the jump from Class A ball and got to the big leagues.

“My mentality is going to be the same [starting as relieving],” Hicks said Wednesday on a sun-splashed workout day at Busch Stadium. “It’s still going to be a bulldog mentality and to not give in. … I’m excited to get on that bump, build up [conditioning] and go as long as I can.”

Choosing Hicks was a major departure from the Cardinals' thinking throughout Spring Training when they gave Jake Woodford and Drew VerHagen multiple chances to win the job. VerHagen, who pitched the past two seasons in Japan, seemed to be the favorite, but he surrendered seven runs in three innings and all but ended his chance. Instead, a former reliever (Hicks) now starts, and former starters (Woodford and VerHagen) will work in long relief.

“We’re pretty aware of what he’s done up to now in terms of innings, so he’ll probably go a max of two innings,” said Marmol, who made sure to stress that Hicks is the No. 5 starter and Tuesday’s outing isn’t a one-off moment. “We’ll throw him out there and see what we can get out of him.”

Hicks never pitched in Double-A or Triple-A and made his MLB debut in 2018 as one of the game’s hardest throwers ever. In 2018, when he had 24 holds and six saves, he threw a 105.1 mph fastball that tied Aroldis Chapman for the fastest recorded pitch in MLB history. In 2019, when Hicks saved 14 of his 15 chances, he had the fastest pitch of that season at 104.3 mph. However, the torque on his arm resulted in a torn right elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery. A Type I diabetic, Hicks opted out of the 2020 season, and he then reinjured his elbow in 2021 while laboring through 10 appearances.

Now, Hicks is trying to reinvent himself as a starting pitcher who relies more on movement and location than one who simply blows batters away. The velocity is still there, he stressed, but he will be more selective about when he dials it up to triple digits.

“The [velocity] is still going to be there and it’s not going to just disappear,” said Hicks, whose pitches were around 100 to 102 mph during Spring Training. “If I need it, it’ll be there. If the situation calls for it, I’ll just feel it out. But I’m not going to constantly be thinking about it and looking at the radar gun; I just want to feel natural.”

Wainwright, who will make his sixth Opening Day start on Thursday, said if there’s anyone on the team who can successfully go from closing games to starting them, it’s the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Hicks, who is arguably the best athlete on the team.

“I would never bet against Jordan; he’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen,” Wainwright marveled. “He’s the most dynamic athlete I’ve ever seen. He’s probably the fastest guy on the team and he, obviously, throws the hardest. He’s a special talent.”

When he started games in high school and in Class A, Hicks claimed his arm got stronger the longer he was on the mound. Now that will be tested when he gets the first start of his Major League career on Tuesday.

“In the Minor Leagues, in my last couple of starts, I remember going seven or eight innings and hitting 99 or 100 in those games,” he recalled. “I always told the guys around me, `I want to start, I want to start.’ [Former Cardinal reliever Trevor] Rosenthal used to say that and he got his opportunity. So now I’m ready to go.”