Hicks’ untimely misstep Tuesday puts his starting role for Cardinals in question

On a night where the Cardinals needed to see a step forward from Jordan Hicks as a starting pitcher, he regressed in another truncated outing that opened the floodgates for a dominating Blue Jays victory at Busch Stadium.
St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Jordan Hicks throws during the ninth inning of a baseball...
St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Jordan Hicks throws during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds Friday, April 23, 2021, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)(Jeff Roberson | AP)
Published: May. 25, 2022 at 3:41 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - On a night where the Cardinals needed to see a step forward from Jordan Hicks as a starting pitcher, he regressed in another truncated outing that opened the floodgates for a dominating Blue Jays victory at Busch Stadium.

Toronto defeated St. Louis 8-1 on Tuesday to earn a split in the brief two-game set and to snap the Cardinals’ winning streak at four games. More importantly to the state of the Cardinals pitching rotation, the Blue Jays used healthy cuts and quality plate discipline to further expose some cracks in the experiment that has seen Hicks try his hand as a starter this season.

After traversing a full five innings just once in six starts prior to Tuesday, Hicks this time failed to record an out in the fourth. Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen tagged him for a three-run homer high off the left-field foul pole to account for the bulk of the damage against him Tuesday, but Hicks made his bed with five bases on balls.

The command issues for Hicks Tuesday stemmed from an inability to get comfortable with his fastball⁠—and to locate it effectively.

“A lot of walks,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “At the end of the day, you can’t go out there every five days and not attack the strike zone and (not) have command of your fastball.”

Hicks diagnosed the problem on Tuesday the same way as his manager did.

“I felt like I didn’t have command of my fastball,” Hicks said. “I feel like if I can get that fastball in there, that’s the game-changer. I can’t be out there throwing slider, curveball every pitch. It’s frustrating.”

Hicks described an example that illustrated the importance of a starter’s fastball command in moments where the game might be on the line. With the Cardinals trailing 1-0 in the fourth inning, Hicks was angling to work around traffic on first and second with Jansen at the plate.

The knowledge that his fastball just wasn’t quite where Hicks wanted it to be imposed some limitations on the Cardinals starter in that moment. The results had repercussions on the outcome of the game.

“For example, I’m 3-2 (on Jansen), throw a slider in there⁠—the one they hit off the foul pole,” Hicks said. “I feel like I had two close fastballs in that at-bat that I didn’t get the call on. Could’ve gone either way. But it’s just that confidence factor⁠—you just missed two right on the corner. All right, what’s been working all game? Slider. Hang it a little bit. One of two or three that I hung all night. And they hit it off the foul pole. We move on.”

The line score for Hicks⁠—3.0 innings pitched, four runs, all earned, with five walks to three strikeouts⁠—was especially disappointing considering that Tuesday was billed to the 25-year-old starter as the first in his season for which there was no limitation on his pitch count. Following a prolonged and carefully considered period of building up his arm for the workload, the Cardinals were ready to cut him loose. In his seventh start of the season, how deep he went would be determined by his effectiveness on the mound, and nothing else.

It didn’t go the way anyone on the Cardinals had hoped.

“Our hope going into that game was that he was able to attack the strikes zone, let his stuff play and go deep,” Marmol said. “That wasn’t possible with five walks.”

The Cardinals announced out of spring training that Hicks had done enough to earn the No. 5 spot in the rotation out of spring training, but preached patience with regard to how quickly his workload would ramp up to resemble that of a traditional starting pitcher.

Scheduled off-days and unscheduled postponements in the season’s opening month saw Hicks’ turn in the starting five delayed until April 21, but he had fared well in a pair of two-inning relief appearances. Across those four relief innings, Hicks held opponents scoreless, allowing just one hit and two walks while striking out five.

When he got his turn in the rotation, he held his own, slowly extending further into each subsequent outing until he completed five innings for the first time on May 14. He reached his season-high pitch count last week in New York, throwing 82 pitches over four innings of two-run baseball. Tuesday was to be his unleashing.

Instead, Hicks left the game after just 78 pitches due to ineffectiveness. He threw 40 strikes, 38 balls. His manager didn’t mince words post-game evaluating the performance.

“His ability to throw strikes and get ahead and then go to his secondary is going to be important. He wasn’t able to do that tonight,” Marmol said. “It’s not a lack of communication or overall messaging. It’s a matter of execution. At some point, execution has to take place.”

“It’s a good question, and one we’ll evaluate,” Marmol replied regarding the degree to which Hicks would need to correct his command issues in order to maintain his starting role. “We want to make sure we’re competing. When you get on a bit of a roll and start winning some games, you want guys to go out there and give you a shot. Today, I think a combination of not commanding his pitches and the overall pace we operated at made it difficult.”

The Cardinals entered Tuesday on a four-game winning streak. Though Kevin Gausman was electric in opposition to the St. Louis lineup, striking out eight over six scoreless innings, the reality was that Hicks didn’t give his team a reasonable chance to win the game. That’s an exasperating truth for a team that had been building some momentum lately⁠—and Marmol’s demeanor Tuesday night reflected it.

“We’ve been patient up to this point,” Marmol said. “At some point, it’s very difficult on your bullpen, especially when you have multiple starters giving you four innings and five innings at a time⁠—sometimes less than that. So we’ll take a deep look at it. We have a day off (Wednesday). We’ll be able to re-evaluate where we’re at and what we need, and then make decisions going forward.”

Marmol’s frustration isn’t necessarily directed at Hicks alone. In the most recent turn through the Cardinals’ rotation, Dakota Hudson, Matthew Liberatore, Steven Matz (due to injury), and Hicks all failed to get through five innings in their respective outings. Matz is on the injured list with a shoulder impingement. The starting pitching depth for St. Louis is being stretched thin.

Those upon whom the Cardinals would rely to carry the mantle are consistently dropping it far too early in their outings. With the team now actively seeking solutions to this problem, Hicks’ untimely misstep on Tuesday puts him in line for a thorough evaluation of his role.