ST. LOUIS — It’s a year in the making, but Shelby Miller will finally take the hill in a postseason start Tuesday. After sitting on the sidelines for 2013’s World Series run despite a sterling rookie campaign, the 23-year-old will finally get a chance to win a game in October.
“I know I'll be nervous, excited. I feel like it's an awesome opportunity to get to pitch in games like this. My whole life I've been excited and been waiting for this kind of opportunity,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is just take it all in and whatever situation we're sitting in, like I said, I'm going to treat it the same exact way as if it were my last. The biggest thing is to go out there and just fight for my teammates.”
The situation is crucial, with the Dodgers on the brink of elimination and Zack Greinke waiting in Los Angeles if the Birds can’t finish them off. Clayton Kershaw is going on short rest for the second time in his career, facing a Cardinal lineup that exploded on him in Game 1.
It would be easy for Miller to carry extra weight into Game 4, with an entire offseason to think about being left out of the equation last fall. Though he acknowledged he has been looking forward to another shot at October, he said he was focused on the road leading up to it first.
“I wouldn't say in spring training, I'm going into spring training thinking about not being forgotten in October this year. First off, that's six months away. And I've got a whole season to worry about first off before I think about that,” he said.
The season was a bit iffy at times, with Miller struggling mightily to crack into the sixth and seventh innings early on. His inability to be economical with his pitches forced him to rack up stunted outings, and doubt was creeping in that he could return to his 2013 form; a scary proposition once Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha went down.
To counteract the listing ship, Mike Matheny pulled Miller out of the rotation. The idea was to rest him, and allow the former first-rounder to recenter.
“I think that any kind of rest is good. Clearly it's a long season. You grind it out the whole entire time.And I think that did help with figuring out some mechanic things, resting a little bit, getting physically back to normal,” Miller said in his characteristically measured southern drawl. “And absolutely, I think it helped me down the stretch.”
He returned to the rotation for 12 starts, holding hitters to a sub-.200 average and finishing seven innings in a third of his games. Longevity wasn’t the only improvement, either. Miller game back to strike out 54 batters and walk only 18, for a 3-to-1 ratio. Before his break, he had struck out 73 and issued 54 free trips to first base.
A lot of that success can be attributed to his evolution as a pitcher. Matheny has talked about Miller’s growth all year long, and his strong 2014 finish is the product of a pitcher willing to learn.
“Shelby has had a strong season, probably improved as much as anybody this year and made some huge strides in his game that are going to help him down the road,” Matheny said. “This league makes adjustments pretty quick. And he was very smart to listen and watch Adam Wainwright, who continues to change his repertoire, just to give him a different look. And Shelby is now more of a pitcher and not a thrower.”
Miller has thrown the curveball will increasing frequency in the second half- especially after Yadier Molina returned- and added an effective sinker with a little help from acquisition Justin Masterson.
“I noticed that and a lot of other people noticed that, that my four-seam, rely on that pitch a lot. And throughout All-Star break and early on, it wasn't as effective as it could be,” he said “And with Waino and Lackey and all those guys, who wanted me to mix in a sinker the whole time, I started doing it. And just never found the grip until Masterson got here and I tried it and I liked it. And it's a pitch we use now. And I think it's been the difference maker in going deeper in the games.”
Depth would be nice for the Cardinals, who may need to wait until the Dodger bullpen gets involved to crack into the run column. If Miller can keep things close long enough to get to the late-inning arms for St. Louis, 2013 will be a distant memory.