In Jupiter for spring training, Springfield Cardinals’ manager Jose Leger observed camp and he started counting.

“I was doing the numbers – fourteen players that played (in Springfield) from 2021 when I started here – have gotten to the big leagues with us,” he said. “It’s definitely something to feel good about.”

Most of those players – like Brendan Donovan, Jordan Walker, Ivan Herrera, and Victor Scott II – share something in common.

They don’t pitch.

Springfield (3-0) hosts Wichita (1-2) in the 2024 home opener at Hammons Field tonight and everyone’s eyes in the Ozarks this season are fixed on the mound.

Springfield’s rotation is headlined by a pair of right-handed starters that sit atop the Cardinals’ Top Prospect Rankings by 21-year-old Tink Hence (No. 1) and 22-year-old Tekoah Roby (No. 2).

Hence dazzled in the Cards’ 6-1 win over Arkansas on Friday night. The Pine Bluff, Arkansas native reached 98 mph and tossed five shutout innings, surrendered no hits, and struck out three.

“It’s about me trusting my stuff within the zone, I feel like I get behind a lot of hitters and set myself up for a worse position that makes me more predictable,” he told the media earlier in the week.

“My stuff, a lot of times my stuff plays better within the zone. Me trying to be perfect sometimes makes me worse than what I am.”

Hence averaged more than nine strikeouts-per-game last season but he faded down the stretch as a career-high 96 innings-pitched took its toll. Hence went 0-3 with a 10.62 ERA in five August starts and he spent the winter regaining the confidence to attack hitters.

“I’m throwing the same (pitches), it’s just timing,” Hence said.  “I’d do a lot of things that made me think I had to do this, or try to do that, to make (a pitch) better, when in reality I already got it. I just have to find that touch and be consistent.”

“For Tink, coming back I think showing a little more consistency – last year he had his struggles, and he was limited to five innings. So, we’ll try to get him deep in games and see what he can do,” Leger said.

The organization has been careful with Hence so far. He threw eight innings in 2021, then 52.1 with Palm Beach in 2022 before nearly doubling that total last year. Tink spent the offseason strength-training in Atlanta, building the core and leg muscles required for him to sustain a full workload.

“I definitely believe I’m going to have an appearance in the show (in 2024). “I feel like this year is the year I make an appearance. I’m very excited and I’m ready to work,” he said.

The Cardinals acquired Roby from the Texas Rangers in the Jordan Montgomery deal in July, and he recorded 19 strikeouts over 12 innings in four starts with Springfield. Roby boasts a four-pitch mix and touches the upper 90s with his fastball – like Hence, he’s determined to improve the mental side of his game.

“A lot of what I did this offseason was not pitching related,” he said. “I basically had to sit down and be really honest with myself. What I came to was – it wasn’t really, like, my stuff. I think my stuff is good enough to compete at whatever level you want me to compete at.”

Through his agent, Roby found a mental coach to help overcome adversity and sustain success.

“I used to think it was a game-to-game kind of thing. I would go out for a game, have a really good game and then the next game would be bad, and I would be like, the whole game was bad. You go back and look under a magnifying glass and its very pitch-to-pitch.

Every pitch is incredibly important. I think there were times I didn’t really think about that – I would look at a game like, man, I hope I do well in this game. Now I’m going to commit and try to execute every pitch. It’s no longer, like, ‘the game was bad’ – I didn’t execute that pitch. Now it doesn’t unravel, its pitch-to-pitch, I can make adjustments and recommit to my process.”

Roby’s debut in 2024 is a good test of his new approach.

He was brilliant for four innings in the Cards’ 6-5 win on Saturday, but he ran into trouble in the fifth. Roby hit a batter, balked runners into scoring position and surrender a two-run homer. He left with the Cards down 4-3 and took a no decision.

Max Rajcic (No. 13 ranked Cards’ prospect) and Ian Bedell (No. 19) will be on the bump for the Wichita series. Cooper Hjerpe (No. 6) starts the season in Peoria but is expected to reach Springfield this season.

“We have a really good pitching staff…we’re deep.  When you have pitching, you always have a chance,” Leger said.


Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505