JUPITER, Fla. — While inhaling a meatball sub at his favorite hometown sandwich shop, Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas offered an early scouting report on the newcomer, who he warmed up to Friday morning.
Most of the left-hander’s throws were four-seam fastballs, tight and true, right on Mikolas’ chest, right where the right-hander prefers them. The ritual of finding a good littermate can take a few days, a few dress rehearsals. But a spring flirtation can hold its own for a whole season. Mikolas had never thrown a ball with Cardinals’ offseason newcomer Steven Matz, and this impromptu throw was her introduction.
“He’s a good catcher,” said Mikolas. “We didn’t throw a lot of breaking balls. Breaking eggs is not first date stuff.”
Less than an hour into his bullpen session on Friday, Mikolas stopped at The Connection for Subs in Jupiter — the same place he’s been going for decades, the one he said would be the measure of his fame in 2018 . A hero is made behind the counter, but a real local celebrity gets a spot on the wall. After an All-Star season, 18 wins and Cy Young voting in 2018, Mikolas’ framed and autographed photo made it close to Burt Reynolds’ in Spring 2019.
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Mikolas stood in line to get a meatball sub, mesquite BBQ chips and a soda before sitting down to discuss how he and so many of his teammates are training during the owners lockout and helping each other that Recreate spring training. After catching with Matz, Mikolas threw a 30 or 40 pitch bullpen to catch Andrew Knizner. In his live batting practice at a local baseball facility that draws dozens of players, Mikolas had a fastball for a Paul DeJong home run and broke Tommy Edman’s bat with a snappy switch.
“I try to drive as full as possible because that’s where I would be now,” said Mikolas. “I don’t look at it as being ready for a specific date. I make it a point that if someone asks you to play it again, I have to be as good as I can at baseball.
A graduate of Jupiter High, Mikolas spent the offseason in his hometown setting up a weight room in his new home on the property Reynolds once owned. That allowed him a flexible training schedule – a necessity as he and wife Lauren have four children under the age of 5, the youngest of whom was born in January. When he needed to throw, he had a friend and facility just a short drive away. Mikolas noted that the Jupiter area baseball facility parking lot has been crowded for the past few days.
A new wave of players arrived, either to be around if negotiations resulted in a deal last week or because their leases started on March 1. Or both.
As the Major League Baseball work stoppage approaches 100 days, the players’ union is setting up a formal training facility with coaches in Arizona, and at least one in Florida has been discussed. Around 10 cardinals (if not more) are all part of the informal camp, which has started at a popular off-season training spot. Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader is new to the group that has included Edman, DeJong, Knizner and Paul Goldschmidt for weeks. Mikolas is watching Dakota Hudson throw there and the young right-hander has live batting practice in a couple of days.
Cy Young Award winners Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, and Washington Nationals first baseman Josh Bell also visit the facility.
While Mikolas sees them all, he’s picky about who gets to see him.
“I only meet teammates,” said the right-hander and pulled a chip out of the bag. “I don’t give strangers free looks, man. That’s my policy at the moment. I have a few new tricks up my sleeve. I don’t want to give away any free looks.”
A year away from ongoing arm problems that made it difficult for him to recover from a bullpen session, Mikolas recently touched 95 mph in a live BP take. His focus on Friday with Knizner was just throwing fastballs and sliders and to work in different locations and sequences of these two pitches.
Another benefit of throwing Knizner and only facing teammates in BP sessions is the feedback he gets from their eyeballs. The competition isn’t short of those at-bats, although Mikolas isn’t yet trying to establish inside fastball, he’s trying to miss hitters and he’s certainly not skipping breaking balls near the plate just yet. This is partly due to practice.
With a lockout, it’s also pragmatic.
“I have a limited number of really good baseballs, so I try not to hit them and I also try not to throw them in the dirt,” Mikolas explained. “So I’m trying to skimp on the baseballs. But I’m also stingy with contacts because I don’t want to ruin all my baseballs. I don’t know how much longer this will go on. I’m sure baseballs are behind. There are a lot of people ordering right now.”
New baseballs will hit the fields at the Cardinals’ spring facility this weekend. Minor league players must report and complete admission forms and physical exams this weekend. The minor-league camp of 153 players, including 82 pitchers, will hold its first official practice session on the back fields of Roger Dean Stadium on Monday. The urge to throw his next live bullpen session at teammates will see Mikolas remove a few blocks from players not on the 40-man roster so they can be in Cardinals jerseys next week.
His goal Tuesday will be up to 50 pitches against batsmen to simulate where he would be in a second exhibition game in the spring. The first three weeks of the Spring Games have been eliminated from the schedule – but not as Pitcher needs that time to build arm strength.
“If Knizner or some high school kid has to carry a 100-pitch bullpen,” Mikolas said. “It takes me 45 minutes to pitch because I throw 10 pitches, sit down for a minute, grab a Gatorade, run some sprints like covering first base, anything, anything. However, I can simulate this, however crazy, weird or creative I need to be, I will. I find it important.”
His motivation, Mikolas said, is more than being ready when a new framework agreement is struck and the season begins. It’s about achieving what he failed to achieve.
Ever since his photo surfaced the subshop, Mikolas’ seasons have been as inconsistent as the last three for Major League Baseball—shortened game schedules, odd spring practices, suddenly missed games. A year after leading the National League with 18 wins, Mikolas led the NL with 14 losses. Forearm and elbow pain during spring 2020 training needed treatment, and then the postponement of the season due to COVID-19 gave him time to rebuild strength. He graduated from summer camp, was due to make his first spring start, and then the pain in his arm required surgery to repair his flexor tendon.
Mikolas returned to the Cardinals to start May 22, completed four innings in front of a limited-capacity crowd, and then was not seen again until August due to injury.
Overall, Mikolas had nine starts in the majors and eight starts in rehab in the minors. He finished the season with 44 2/3 innings for the Cardinals and 81 1/3 innings overall. That’s not the basis for constructing a 200-inning season this year, and with the work stoppage threatening to cut the season short, it could limit his innings this season for next. Even without games, Mikolas wants to start accumulating simulated innings — he called them “sham innings” — so he has evidence of his restored durability.
“Long term, I try to pitch as many innings as possible,” he said. “I don’t want to just pitch 150 innings this year and be OK because we started late because next year is September and it’s like, ‘Gosh, I haven’t pitched 150 innings in ages.’ I want to know that I can. I want to throw 200 innings, eat them up, get deep in the games. I want that peace of mind.”
During his Friday bullpen and during lunch, Mikolas wore one of his souvenirs from a tour of the Cardinals’ minor league members. He kept all the hats he wore on the field and bought several alternate hats from each team. He has three different AAA grade Memphis Redbirds hats (including a Memphis Chicks throwback), a selection of AA grade Springfield hats and some AAA grade Peoria hats, like the one he wore on Friday. It’s Peoria’s En El Rio hat – teal with a purple brim and a riverboat logo with baseball stitching along the body.
He wore it when he threw his bullpen to another Cardinal after playing tag with a Cardinal on Friday, neither of whom were wearing his Cardinals gear.
“Everyone is ready. Everyone is ready,” said Mikolas. “Everyone knows if it moves, it will move quickly. so we’ll just be ready. Turn lemons into lemonade.”