The change from entering the game as a reliever to starting this afternoon did little to affect the effectiveness of Mike Mayers as the St. Louis Cardinals prospect extended his scoreless innings streak to 11 for the spring with a pair of blank frames against the New York Mets.
“I just tried to keep it the same as it would coming out of the bullpen,” said Mayers. “Obviously, there is that aspect that I was a starter not too long ago, so I’m sure I did a few things a little bit differently but I tried to keep it the same. I wanted to keep that same mentality that I’ve had all spring.”
That mentality has Mayers moving well beyond his first two stints in the big leagues where he allowed 24 hits and 22 earned runs in seven appearances with 10 combined innings between the 2016-17 seasons.
“I’ve known and I said this last year, he’s way better than what we’ve seen,” said Mike Matheny. “I know that. He answered the bell, with going out working and trying to figure out something. His stuff’s different. It’s different than what he had before.”
The Mets were held hitless by Mayers, who also struck out a pair of batters–including Yoenis Cespedes. That raises his Grapefruit League total to 12 strikeouts in 11 innings pitched.
“A lot of it is just my mentality,” explained Mayers. “I’m just being a lot more aggressive and just coming at hitters with the stuff that I’m capable of doing. In the past, I’ve kind of been trying to do too much–do things that I’m not capable of. It’s that fine line of trying to get the most out of what I have, but understanding that’s all you got, you can’t make your slider even better than it is.”
The slider became a pitch he had to believe in even more this offseason, as Mayers played winter ball in the Dominican. Stepping outside of his comfort zone on the mound proved to be beneficial.
“The hitters down there are very aggressive,” said Mayers. “They’re very good hitters. A lot of them have time in the big leagues, if not spent a whole year in the big leagues. They’re very aggressive. They hunt fastballs. So it forced me to get the ball down in the zone and learn to use my slider effectively and understand it has to be a pitch that looks like a strike to get a swing.”
And besides the aggressive hitters, there is also the expanded rosters–25 on the daily and 40 players on the weekly roster to provide incentive to pitch with conviction. It was not uncommon to see a pitcher yanked early.
“If you give up a couple hits in the first inning you might not make it out. They’ll go to the bullpen pretty quickly. It definitely forces you to be aggressive and not mess around, for sure.”
With that kind of atmosphere, even a start seemed like a relief appearance–which suited Mayers fine, as he had made the transition from rotation to bullpen the end of the year in Memphis.
Today’s outing showed he still remembered what it was like to start a game, but his path back to St. Louis is more likely through a relief role.
“Whatever gets me to St. Louis,” said Mayers. “I think I’ve done a pretty good job of embracing the bullpen–I think it fits my mentality a lot better than starting. I’m not much of a finesse pitcher. Understanding that this is what I’ve got and this is what you’re going to get and good luck hitting it–that’s kind of been my mentality this spring.
“I got a taste of the bullpen last year at the end of the season in Memphis while we were in the playoffs and that was a blast. As a starter, you got to impact the game once every five days. Coming to the park everyday, understanding that you have a chance to impact the game, made it a lot more fun.”
After moving to the bullpen in July of last season, Mayers began to find a new level of confidence in his pitches and especially as the Redbirds competed in the postseason. In 11 playoff innings, he allowed 6 hits, 10 strikeouts, and no runs.
“I like pitching in the big moment, whether that’s in the 5th inning or whenever that might be,” said Mayers. “You never know when the game might be decided in baseball. Everybody always looks towards the back end of the innings, but in reality if you come in 1st and 2nd, nobody out in the 5th inning that might be the ballgame right there. It’s fun to be able to come to the park everyday and know that you have a chance to impact the game.”
Besides the aggressive mentality, Mayers has also found benefit this spring from the addition of Mike Maddux to the Cardinals coaching staff.
“The big thing that we’ve worked on a little bit is my hands–just getting my hands out of the glove quicker,” said Mayers. “That seems to really help me consistently keep the ball in the bottom of the zone. I feel like I’ve had success in the past pitching in the top of the zone, especially late in the count. But the big difference between now and in the past, now the hitter’s eyes are changing even more because early in the count, I’m consistently down in the zone so when I go to elevate, that pitch seems even further up. That’s been big. He’s done a really good job. These meetings we have every day and just kind of talking about your mentality and different things.”
It’s working. Opponents are hitting just .139 (5-36) against Mayers this spring.
“Essentially when my hands are late, my head sort of flies open and who knows where the ball’s going,” he continued. “It causes the ball to stay up is really what it is and the hitter sees the ball a lot sooner. Just getting the ball out of my glove quicker allows my head to stay still and kind of hide the ball from the hitter a lot more and it makes it easier to get the ball down in the zone.”
So with the end of the Grapefruit League nearing and the roster moves that come along with that, how does Mayers approach these final days of spring?
“Tomorrow, I’m going to come to the field and I’m going to workout and that’s how I’m approaching everything,” he said. “That’s not in my control, what I do at the park tomorrow is so that’s what I’m focused on.”
“People don’t get remembered for what they do in Spring Training–I’m not trying to be a Spring Training hero.”
photo credit: Jasen Vinlove, Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports