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Cardinals 6, Nationals 4

Cardinal pitcher Jordan Hicks checks first base before throwing on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, in the 9th inning of a game against the Washington Nationals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

This year at the Winter Warm-Up, manager Mike Shildt said the Cardinals might not have an official closer, which may sound startling to some, but hey — at least it’s not as bad as last year’s Winter Warm-Up, when it was announced the closer would be Luke Gregerson.

Shildt shared this year that “the game has evolved, we have more information now,” in reference to using key relievers in key moments, regardless of what inning those moments occur. And yes, the baseball save is like the fax machine of stats. But whether it’s via an innovative strategy or just old-fashioned comfort, here’s thinking that Jordan McKinley Hicks will pitch more ninth innings than his teammates do.

“Ultimately,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said, “I hope we have someone we can count on for that ninth.”

That means Hicks increasing his strikeout rate.

And that means Hicks increasing his slider usage.

“The sooner he starts learning that slider, becomes more confident with that slider,” catcher Yadier Molina said, “it’s going to be a huge pitch for him.”

If the Cardinals are going to win meaningful baseball games, like they sure think they will, it’ll mean Hicks in the final-out picture in the paper. Catching the catcher is the coolest thing a pitcher can experience. We’ve seen Bruce Sutter squeeze Darrell Porter and Adam Wainwright and Jason Motte haul in leaping Yadi. And even though Yadi is getting up there in age, here’s thinking he’ll be able to get up there if he catches a Series-winning strike — and if anything, he’ll be aided by his Nike Jordan Brand “Jumpman” shoes.

Speaking of which, at Monday’s Winter Warm-Up, Jordan Hicks’ kicks were Jordans. The player who turns 23 next season wore off-white Jordan 1s, which cost as much as a row of green seats. Hicks — along with Harrison Bader and Jack Flaherty — make up this new, stylish generation of sleek Cardinals. Monday was like a fashion show of sorts. There was some Fendi. Some Gucci. Some other brands I’ve never seen at Marshalls.

But the fashion is a lot like Hicks’ fastball: It may look cool, but if it doesn’t lead to wins, it’s just vanity. Hicks famously reached 105 miles per hour on the radar gun last season. And his sinker averaged triple digits for the whole season. And yes, to his credit, his rate of hard-hit pitches was extremely low. But his walk rate was high, and he needs to increase his strikeout rate. It’s not that he can’t do it this year. It’s just a reminder that even fireballing phenoms can improve.

But he’s building off a 3.59 ERA and, for those wondering, six saves.

“I just expect him to be better,” said Flaherty, who makes January fans daydream of June days in which he goes seven, Andrew Miller pitches the eighth and Hicks the ninth. “Jordan was really, really good last year. He was special. Kind of came out to the scene, no one really knew what to expect. We knew he had a special arm and he showcased that a lot. I think he’s going to be a little more fine, throw a few more strikes. But he’s going to be really good.”

Hicks has a classic closer’s modus operandi. He’s frighteningly confident. He speaks softly and judiciously, picking his words. He does otherworldly things regularly, which led him to wonder Monday: “Every year, my whole life, I’m not going say it’s going to happen (in 2019), but I’ve grown in velocity every single year. It’s not something I really care to do that much, but it’d be pretty cool. Maybe one time if I’m (up on a hitter) 0-2, throw one up in the zone, four seam, and try to get it, who knows? But it’s not something I’m planning on doing or anything.”

He said “it’s awesome” that he threw 105 — and sometimes is asked to inscribe autographs with that number. But he’s not a novelty act. He’s a pitcher. And he’s a pitcher who could be a closer, even if they don’t want to call him that. And, yes, to Shildt’s point, there could be times in which two key lefties are up in the ninth, so he’d use Miller then and perhaps Hicks in the eighth.

“Two days later, that could be conversed,” Shildt said. “We’ve got guys who can do and have done it and I think you’ll see Andrew being used — and that’s my ultimate job to put guys in position where they can best be successful. If you look at that over the scope of a nine-inning game and you just look to manage that — when that situation arises that’s when they’ll pitch. It will be higher leverage, obviously.”

And though Bud Norris was St. Louis’ closer last year, it was Hicks who finished second on the Cardinals in the fancy Fangraphs stat that measures leverage index. Knowing that 1.0 is considered average, Hicks’ game leverage index was 1.44, just behind Norris’ 1.53 (inning, score and baserunners play into this stat). For Cleveland last year, Miller’s was 1.57 — and over the past three seasons, Miller’s has been 1.53. So Hicks has pitched from in the fire —fighting fire with fire.

But just like Matt Carpenter will complement Paul Goldschmidt in the lineup, the multi-inning-eating Miller will complement Hicks. It’s up to the manager to manage it, and the Cards are in a way different situation in that regard now than at Winter Warm-Up time a year ago.


Benjamin Hochman

@hochman on Twitter

bhochman@post-dispatch.com

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