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St. Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jordan Hicks reacts after allowing an RBI-double to Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco that tied the score in the eighth inning during a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium on Thursday, May 31, 2018, in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — Memo to Jordan Hicks:

If at some point this season something does not feel right, speak up. Holler. Better yet, hijack that little cart that chalks the foul lines, and scrawl SOS in Busch Stadium's infield.

You, Jordan Hicks, are the best advocate you have, so you must understand the power of your voice.

This message can't be repeated enough to the rookie righthander who has emerged as one of baseball's hardest throwers, the newfound weapon Cardinals manager Mike Matheny keeps calling from his bullpen.

It's not breaking news that Matheny tends to ask a lot out of the relievers he trusts. That tendency grows when games are close, and proven options are few and far between. Hicks has entered that realm.

The latest example came Tuesday night, when Matheny called upon Hicks for the eighth and ninth innings, hoping Hicks could throw a blanket over the Padres (he did) while the Cardinals overcame a two-run deficit (they didn't).

Some questioned Matheny's decision in the moment, realizing that two innings of work for Hicks likely meant Hicks would not be available if the Cardinals need to turn to the bullpen to hold a lead after Luke Weaver's start on Wednesday.

Turned out Hicks might not be off limits on Wednesday.

"We will trust him tomorrow, and see what he says," Matheny said Tuesday night after the loss. "But after throwing only 18 (pitches) ..."

The Cardinals have medical professionals to keep tabs on player health. Pitchers, especially, are regularly checked for signs of concern. I won't pretend to know more than these folks about what Hicks' 21-year-old right arm can and can't handle.

But you don't have to wear scrubs to work to wonder about Hicks' workload, and how his usage could affect his ability to pitch effectively this entire season, and beyond.

"We have to be smart," Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said Monday.

"The one problem we have right now is that he (Hicks) has been very successful of late with a bullpen that has struggled, so you naturally want to go to him," Mozeliak said. "We are going to have to force ourselves to manage that, and make sure we don't put him in a situation where his volume or overwork becomes something of a problem."

Mozeliak said he would like to avoid seeing a young reliever approach, say, 75 appearances. Hicks has 31 in the bag with 97 regular-season games to go.

"That's why we need to find someone else we can go to in that bullpen," Mozeliak said Monday.

One day later, with recently-promoted Daniel Poncedeleon in the bullpen as a refresher for a relief corps Mozeliak described as exhausted, Matheny went back to Hicks with two innings left and the Cardinals trailing by two.

Matheny explained his thinking after the game, saying Hicks gave his team the best chance to win. He also said three relievers -- he declined to name them -- were declared off-limits before the game.

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Cardinals Reds Baseball

St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Jordan Hicks throws in the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Saturday, June 9, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Hicks certainly did his part, striking out four of the six Padres he faced. (No one's sweating his lack of strikeouts anymore; he's fanned 12 in his six innings of work this month.)

Hicks allowed no hits, but the Cardinals couldn't come up with enough of their own. And by plugging Hicks into the game when the Cardinals' win expectancy had dipped to 13.2 percent at the top of the eighth inning, and leaving him in when that win expectancy had dipped to 7.3 percent entering the ninth inning, Matheny might have erased a chance to use Hicks in a more advantageous spot on Wednesday.

Unless Hicks pitches Wednesday.

That could happen, Matheny said.

"First and foremost, he goes in and has his routine," Matheny said of the process that will determine Hicks' availability for Wednesday. "It starts in the trainer's room. Before he even goes and does his workout, he gets a green light whether they like what they see and how he is responding. Part of it is his communication with them. But the other part is what they see with is body, and how it's responding. We are going to try to be careful with everybody. That's why we had three guys (relievers) shut down today."

An example of this caution, Matheny said, was Hicks declaring he was ready to pitch on Monday. The Cardinals declared him off-limits anyway.

"We will hear what they have to say," Matheny said. "We will err on the side of being cautious, but we will also listen to them when they are telling us they are ready to go, and the medical team supports it."

Only 20 major league relievers have made more appearances than Hicks so far this season. His 31 appearances are tied for third among rookie relievers. And even that noteworthy stat is somewhat misleading. The most-used rookie reliever, Arizona's Yoshihisa Hirano, is 34 years old. The second-most used rookie reliever, Noe Ramirez of the Angels, is a 28-year-old who made his debut in 2015. Then comes Tayron Guerrero of the Marlins. He's 27.

Again, Hicks is 21, and this is the former starter's first season as a reliever.

He's done more than fill a need. He's become a force.

"He's rare," Matheny said. "There are not guys throwing triple-digits, with sink."

Hicks' uptick in strikeouts should cut some stress from his job.

More importantly, he has helped himself so far by being forthcoming with his self-assessments. This is the trait Hicks must stay true to as he navigates this uncharted terrain. Save the tough guy for the mound. The smart guy needs to be having candid conversations in the trainer's room. Hicks has gained a reputation as as straight shooter in that department. And that's a good sign, considering the Cardinals are sorting this out in real time.

Hicks can't forget that he has the most to lose if he is overused.

He knows his body.

He must listen to it, and not hesitate to make noise if it tells him it's being asked to do too much.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

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