JUPITER, Fla. – Athletes prepare for competition in different ways. For 18-year-old Cardinals minor league pitcher Alec Willis, of Regis High School in Aurora, Colorado, that meant going to a movie. But it wasn’t anything of the “Rocky” variety.
Willis watched the computer animated comedy “Ratatouille,” released by Walt Disney Pictures, Sunday night before his first day at a Cardinals minor league spring training camp.
“It calmed the nerves a bit,” Willis said, smiling.
Willis, a seventh-round draft pick last July who received a $1 million signing bonus to forego a scholarship to the University of Minnesota, did not run on Monday’s first drizzly day of practice. He competed in non-throw workouts as he will be throwing his first bullpen session, which won’t happen until Thursday. But Willis, who retired all three hitters he faced in the Florida Complex League last summer (with two groundouts and a strikeout), is eager to flex his 97 mph fastball, changeup and sinker.
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“So far I haven’t had any complaints or anything close to a complaint,” said the 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-hander, who underwent ulnar nerve decompression surgery on his right elbow in 2020 and was throwing even harder when he popped up Boy Scout radar.
“When I got home everyone was like, ‘It’s going to be relaxed,'” Willis told a small media group. “In my eyes it was, ‘No, I have to prove something on day one.’ But actually, it’s pretty ‘cool’ – to beat us up.”
But despite the fact that he didn’t pitch, Willis said he was still nervous.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he says. “When I got on that bus (from the Doubletree Hotel) I had butterflies in my stomach. But once you’re on the field, I already know a bunch of these guys.”
With an entire offseason to contemplate his 1-2-3 pro debut against the Miami Marlins’ complex league team, Willis said he wanted to focus on his off-speed courts.
“You can get away with a two-pitch mix in high school,” he said. “But once you get here — I learned that in Complex League last year — you need three, maybe four (pitches) if you want to be a starter.”
He’s also been told, “If you don’t have a fastball squad, you can’t really deviate (anywhere) from it.”
Of his knuckle-curved off-speed pitch he showed in high school, Willis said he was working on a change with a fade and a sinker to match the slider he owned.
“Now that I’ve got a taste of it,” Willis said, “I want even more.”
At this young age, Willis cannot yet say where he will end up this year. He said some of his teammates had advice for him this offseason: “If you don’t like where you are, just hit better.”
Gorman enjoys the work
While Willis is in his first spring camp at 18, infielder Nolan Gorman, who finished last season as a second baseman at Triple-A Memphis, is in his fourth at 21.
“I wake up every morning and just enjoy what I’m doing,” Gorman said. “If there’s someone who doesn’t enjoy getting up and going to the field every day, then they probably shouldn’t be here.”
Gorman will likely be playing mostly second base when the camp games start in nine days. He’s been here since January, working with infield guru Jose “Cheo” Oquendo.
When veteran second baseman Kolten Wong signed with Milwaukee a year ago, Gorman said Wong told him, “Come on ‘Cheo.’ Stay close to him and you will learn a lot.”
Gorman, who hit a total of 25 homers in both AA and AAA last year, is clearly closer to the big leagues than most of the other 153 players here in camp. But he said: “Given the negotiations (between players and owners over the industrial dispute that has led to the top division sides being locked out of camp) at the moment, there’s not much you can do. So, be where your feet are… and play.”
Liberatore visualizes Cards Winning Series
Left-hander Matthew Liberatore, a longtime friend of Gorman’s from their Arizona baseball youth, is another on the cusp of the majors.
Liberatore, who threw his first bullpen session of the year on Monday, was the top starter for the US Olympic team during their qualifier for last year’s Summer Games in Tokyo but was disallowed by the Cardinals to compete in Japan. He returned to Memphis, started the Futures Game in Denver, and finished his Triple-A season strong by winning five of his last seven decisions.
He said that one of the points he focuses on is “visualization and breathwork.” I try to put myself in the environments I want to see myself in in the future and try to make it as realistic as possible,” he said. “Sights, sounds, smell, taste, touch. I do this for 15 minutes every night before I go to bed. When it comes to acting out that visualization, it’s like I’ve done it a thousand times before.”
Liberataore, who came from Tampa Bay in trade with Randy Arozarena, said, “I think I’ve learned a lot about myself over the last year. I had a lot of failures in the first half of the season. I got hit a little bit so I figured out how to deal with it.
“In the constant evolution of always striving for perfection, looking for the next best… I may have taken a step in the wrong direction. I went back to my roots and talked to my pitching coach and some of the guys I listen to since I was way younger and they just reminded me of some of the things I used to do and things that inspire me who I am and… it was like turning the light switch on again.”
Liberatore said in a way he missed not being able to compete at the Summer Games. The US team finished second.
“That would have been cool,” he says. “But at the end of the day I want to win a World Series. That is my goal. And I want to do it here with the Cardinals.”