Springfield Cardinals’ manager Jose Leger has a sign for baserunners when he doesn’t want them to steal.
He won’t be using it much with his new leadoff man.
Mike Antico was promoted to Double-A Springfield on Friday and the speedy outfielder that swiped 37 bases at Peoria (High-A) went straight to work.
On the fourth pitch of Friday’s game from Wichita Wind Surge starter Sawyer Gipson-Long, Antico turned a blooper to short centerfield into a lead-off double, then he stole third base and scored on Nick Dunn’s base hit.
A Double-A debut that would make Whitey Herzog proud.
“He got to second so quick, next thing I know – whoa, you’re at second base,” Leger said.
“Two or three pitchers later I’m looking at the pitch being thrown and next thing you know, he’s at third base – almost without a throw, man this guy can fly.”
When Antico arrived before Springfield’s 5-1 win on Friday, Leger made sure his new charge was aware of the video analysis and data the Cardinals keep on opposing pitchers.
Antico had seen Gipson-Long before and was already familiar with his timing and delivery.
But the first thing the former Texas Longhorn did at Hammons Field on Saturday afternoon was ask Leger for the book on Wichita righthander Blayne Enlow – a new adversary.
“Right away we spotted something he does…if (Antico) is on the bases he’s going to be looking for that –and looking to steal,” Leger said before the game.
With one on and one out in the Cardinals’ third inning, Antico drilled an RBI-double into the right field corner and his presence at second base immediately unnerved Enlow.
Enlow walked Cardinals’ shortstop Masyn Winn, then stepped-off twice during Dunn’s at-bat and threw over once to check on Antico.
Dunn is a left-handed batter, and that usually increases the difficulty for a runner stealing third base.
This time, it didn’t matter.
On a 3-1 pitch, Antico made his move and Wichita catcher Andrew Bechtold fired to third in vain.
Lunn walked and the next batter, Malcom Nunez, hit a sacrifice fly to score Antico – a run created entirely by the New Jersey native’s legs.
In the fifth inning, Antico reached on a fielder’s choice and stole second base – his second robbery of the game and 40th of the 2022 campaign.
“It’s a lot of anticipation, just having a feel for the game – knowing what pitch is coming, the right time to go,” Antico said prior to Saturday’s game.
“I’m not really a reckless base-stealer, I kind of pick my spots when I know I got it…if I can get that good jump off the pitcher, I usually got the bag.”
Antico was highly touted out of Colts Neck High School in New Jersey and St. John’s University manager Ed Blankmeyer recruited him to stay close to home.
Antico helped the Red Storm to two NCAA Regional appearances as a freshman and sophomore; he hit .386 with 20 stolen bases as a junior in 2019 and spent that summer in the Cape Cod League.
When COVID disrupted his senior season at St. John’s, Antico was granted an extra year of NCAA eligibility and he opted to finish his collegiate career last summer at the University of Texas. In Austin, a former MLB All-Star on Texas’ coaching staff saw big league potential in Antico and pushed him beyond his comfort zone.
“I sharpened up my game a lot, where I started working with Troy Tulowitzki – he really elevated my game,” Antico said.
“He kind of said ‘Hey, what you got is good, but I want to see you play in the big leagues and this is what we’re going to have to do’. We went through a lot of things, a lot of adjustments – a lot of, maybe, uncomfortable conversations that you don’t want to have.”
“What I had was working, but he just wanted it to work long-term,” he said.
“We definitely tinkered with my swing a lot, even in the field, throwing, base stealing – I was good at everything, he wanted to make me great, and he wanted me to be able to continue to play.”
Working with Tulowitzki wasn’t the only benefit of wearing burnt orange.
Antico and the Longhorns went all the way to the College World Series in Omaha and Texas won four games on college baseball’s biggest stage.
UT lost 2-of-3 games to the eventual champion Mississippi State, but Antico went 2-for-4 with two RBIs in the Longhorns’ 8-5 win over the Bulldogs. The experience was invaluable preparation for the pressure of professional baseball.
“To be honest with you, I felt almost calm yesterday (in his Double-A debut),” he said. “Maybe if I hadn’t been in an environment like that, yesterday might have been very overwhelming for me.”
Success at the collegiate and summer league levels translated to Peoria, where Antico led all of Class-A in stolen bases this season before being promoted. If the 24-year-old is to continue rising in the Cardinals’ system, speed will be the key.
In the third-base coaches’ box on Friday night, Leger had his stopwatch out.
“He hit a grounder, 3.96 (seconds) down the line – that’s elite,” he said.
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