By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
ST. LOUIS — For the majority of Wednesday afternoon’s 5-2 victory over Milwaukee, the Cardinals found the game going to script. With the game on the line, the team’s catcher and closer flipped to the scene that had been carefully crafted for a precise moment.
Adam Wainwright breezed through six dominant innings before recording the 150th victory of his career, the bullpen made quick work of the slugging Brewers, and Marcell Ozuna and Yadier Molina slugged the team to a comfortable lead. With two outs in the ninth, though, Andrew Miller loaded the bases after allowing a single, a walk, and a hit by pitch. After a second walk forced in a run, Jordan Hicks was summoned from the bullpen to nail down a one out save.
Waiting was Christian Yelich.
Despite a hitless performance in the first two games of this series, Yelich has torched Cardinal pitching this season. He’s recorded eight home runs and 19 RBI against St. Louis, and the calendar has yet to flip to May. In March, in the season’s fourth game, Yelich made a statement that Hicks and Molina would remember.
In that game, Hicks entered with the Cardinals clinging to a one run lead. Ben Gamel hit a double which fell awkwardly in left field, Lorenzo Cain beat out an infield single off Hicks’s glove, and Yelich was waiting to ambush a fastball. Below is the visualization of that at bat, retrieved from MLB’s Baseball Savant.
Hicks began with two sliders; both were below the strike zone. Wainwright can explain the rest.
“We saw in Milwaukee, [Hicks] came in and threw a 101 mile per hour fastball, and Yelich hit it left center gap,” Wainwright said. “It…says how good Yelich is, that as a pitcher who can throw 104 miles per hour, he knows he’s gotta do something different.”
And so Hicks and Molina tried something different by adding something different to the mix. Below is the visualization of Wednesday’s at bat.
“Clearly there was a game plan,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “Jordan made his pitches. Fastball was up to change his eye level, and then he was able to go on and under the plate.”
In Milwaukee, Hicks started below the zone with a slider and then came up into it. That drew Yelich’s gaze (and swing) dead center, and the result was disastrous. On Wednesday, Hicks also threw two sliders to start the at bat, but both were in the strike zone. The first was taken and the second was fouled off. By then, when Hicks delivered a triple digit jolt, it was a waste pitch; up, away, and out of danger.
“I won’t tell you our scouting report,” Molina said, “but obviously we’re facing a good hitter. He’s hot. You gotta be smart in that situation.”
Smart, in this case, involved bringing in Hicks’s third pitch. This season he’s begun to feature a changeup which registers in the low 90s, as contrasted with his mid-80s slider and overwhelming sinking fastball. It’s a weapon that’s used rarely, and almost exclusively against left handed hitters, as Yelich is. Prior to Wednesday, Statcast had recorded nine Hicks changeups this season, and eight of those have been thrown to hitters standing on the first base side of home plate.
Thanks to the last two pitches to Yelich, that number is now 11. One, a ball in the dirt. The last was the last pitch of the game; Yelich was unable to check his swing and was punched out to preserve a Cardinals victory.
“That’s another weapon for him,” Molina said. “Obviously when you throw 104, every pitch is effective, but right now he’s got confidence in that pitch.”
The decision to go to the changeup was one made by Molina when he came out to the mound to discuss his game plan with Hicks. That visit, according to Hicks, was one born of subterfuge and necessity.
“Yadi came out there, he’s like, ‘hey, I wanna throw a changeup, but I don’t want them to see my sign,'” Hicks said with a wry smile. “I’m pretty sure they’re big on that, like stealing signs and whatnot.”
Still, Hicks said, Molina was clear with his instructions: the pitch absolutely had to be in the dirt. Hicks had given up a home run to Travis Shaw on a changeup on Tuesday night, but felt confidence on Wednesday to go back to the well. And, Hicks said, by putting the ball in the dirt, he guaranteed any contact would do minimal damage.
That changeup, coming off a delivery ten miles per hour faster and four feet higher, was sure to play tricks on even one of the hottest hitters in baseball.
“I don’t know how you could ever lay off a 91 mile an hour split [finger] when you’re looking for 104,” Wainwright said. “Yeah, I don’t know how you could ever hit that.”
Yelich didn’t. The plan was altered and found success, and Hicks found a payoff for his singular focus.
“I just had to get that out,” Hicks said. “That was my plan. I knew it was gonna be Yelich. I didn’t think about anything else.”
“Started off with that good first pitch slider and when I landed that I was like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ I got ahead of him, and when I get ahead of Yelich I feel like, I dunno. He’s not gonna hit me.”