Helsley's pitch mix proving electric out of 'pen

August 16th, 2019

CINCINNATI -- It had been 10 days since Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley last pitched in a game before he entered in the seventh inning Thursday night -- the longest he remembers going without pitching while having been healthy.

But the number of days off didn’t hinder Helsley at all in the Cardinals’ 2-1 loss to the Reds. His two scoreless innings were a large reason why the Cardinals were able to put the winning run at the plate in the top of the ninth. Helsley allowed just one hit and struck out three in his two innings, another outing where the right-hander with a 2.08 ERA this season has kept the Cardinals in the game, no matter what the deficit is.

“I felt good,” Helsley said. “Body felt good. I’ve been doing weight room stuff, trying to stay strong and healthy and waiting for the opportunity.”

Helsley’s effectiveness is largely due to the emergence of his offspeed pitches. He’s been able to mix in his cutter, changeup and curveball with his fastball -- which hovers around 97 mph -- to keep hitters off-balance. On Thursday, he threw 10 fastballs and 10 cutters, along with three curveballs, which is by far the most balanced pitch selection he’s had this season. He relied more on his fastball earlier in the year, but while he’s gone back and forth from the Cardinals and Triple-A Memphis, he’s worked on his breaking ball, in order to incorporate it more in his outings.

“I didn’t have a feel for my offspeed, mostly the curveball and changeup, earlier this season,” Helsley said. “When I was down in Memphis, I put an emphasis on working on my offspeed, trying to get those down, [so it could] help elevate my fastball. I’m trying to keep it down in the zone, mix it up, mess with their timing. Strike one always helps, and when I do that, I feel like I have more success.”

Keeping hitters off-balance, along with the way that the ball comes out of Helsley’s hand, leads to an uncomfortable at-bat for opponents, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said.

“You look and you see if guys are seeing the balls well and getting off their good swings,” Shildt said. “You don’t see that a lot with Helsley. You see guys that aren’t picking up the baseball or getting their best swing off. He’s got control of the zone. Last night he had good command. He’s got a good live ball that comes out and a good, late breaking ball. Guys just don’t pick it up well.”

As Helsley showcases his mix of pitches, he’s become less of a thrower and more of a pitcher. He uses his fastball to get ahead in the count, his breaking ball to keep the hitter off-balance and his fastball again to finish the at-bat off.

“I think right off the bat, you look at his fastball, and it’s pretty vicious,” Cardinals reliever John Brebbia said. “And as we’ve seen him pitch more and more, he’s showcasing some offspeed stuff. He can pitch really well. It’s funny, you see someone that has such a great heater, but then you’re like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, he’s got some really good other pitches. This is going to be nice.’ He’s not an easy guy to hit.”

Rotation set for Central showdown

The Cardinals have an opportunity to widen the gap between the Brewers -- who entered play Friday one game behind the Cubs and Cardinals tied for first in the National League Central -- during a three-game series starting Monday at Busch Stadium. Dakota Hudson will start the series opener, Shildt said Friday.

Then Michael Wacha -- who allowed two runs in five innings Thursday night -- will start Tuesday, with Adam Wainwright pitching Wednesday.

Major Leaguers in the Minors

Daniel Ponce de Leon had another solid start for Memphis on Thursday night, throwing seven scoreless innings for a second straight start. He allowed just two hits and struck out eight against the Iowa Cubs. Shildt had said after the first time that Ponce de Leon threw seven shutout innings that the Cardinals were looking for consistency from the right-hander, who was sent down to Memphis after giving up 10 runs in nine innings over his final three starts in July.

Shildt also said that the Cardinals are looking for consistency from center fielder Harrison Bader, who homered for the Redbirds on Thursday night and is 8-for-22 in his last six games.

The question now becomes when Ponce de Leon and Bader will be back with the Cardinals.

“We’re excited that they’ve both done well,” Shildt said. “Ponce has had two good back-to-back outings. Reality is, our pitching has been really good up here. It’s been nice. That’s what good organizations have, they have guys that are contributing at the big league level and guys that are available and ready to go at the Triple-A level. We talked to Ponce and [Bader] as well, and they’re both Major League players in Triple-A. They’ll be back at some point to contribute.”

Worth noting

Short Season-A State College athletic trainer Joseph Olsiewicz was recognized as the New York-Penn League Athletic Trainer of the Year by the Professional Baseball Athletic Training Society on Friday. Olsiewicz and the 15 other league winners, along with the Dominican Summer League winner and Minor League Coordinator of the Year, are eligible for the Minor League Athletic Trainer of the Year Award, with the winner announced at the MLB Winter Meetings.