photo: Jordan Hicks (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports)
“I feel great!” (emphasis added). Three simple words made the day of St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt the morning after reliever Jordan Hicks made his return to the mound on Sunday. One year, eight months and 17 days in the making, his first game appearance was nothing short of epic, but the fact he still felt good the day after was equally, if not more important.
Coming off recovery from Tommy John surgery, Hicks got in his one inning/25 pitches of scheduled work by facing just one batter during Sunday’s 7-5 loss to the New York Mets. The 22-pitch battle between Hicks and Mets infielder Luis Guillorme overshadowed everything else in baseball that afternoon. It was the stuff of which legends are created.
Shildt praised future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina for coming out to the mound in the 13-14 pitch range to give the pitcher “a blow”. In doing so, it created a break as if between batters. The manager said Hicks’ outing “exceeded all expectations”.
At 21 years of age, Hicks had made the jump from Class A to the Major Leagues in 2018 and struck out 70 in 77 2/3 innings as a rookie. In 2019, the right-hander dominated hitters with a 3.14 ERA and 14 saves, striking out 31 in 28 2/3 innings.
Then came the injury that sidelined the Houston, Texas native. Pitching to David Fletcher of the Angels on June 25, 2019, Jordan felt a twinge in his elbow. Originally diagnosed as triceps tendinitis, Hicks received a second and third opinion before finally succumbing to the knife.
Recovery for this type of surgery is usually in the range of 12-15 months but then came 2020 and Hicks’ decision to sit out the season. This decision was driven by Hicks’ Type 1 diabetes, increasing his COVID-19 risk.
The pandemic proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Cardinals and their hurler. The decision to sit out relieved the team and player of taking the risk to perhaps rush him back, a temptation to which many have fallen. It’s not the first time the organization has erred on the side of caution with their prized hurler. In 2015, just after drafting Hicks out of high school, the Cardinals shut him down for shoulder soreness and then again in 2016 so he could get a full Fall League experience. The moves paid off handsomely.
The future Cardinals closer hit the radar in the 100 mph range for the first time publicly during spring training 2018. Before the injury, Hicks became the first pitcher to reach 105 multiple times in the same game.
The flamethrower doused any doubts that he could again hit that range on Sunday with six pitches registering 100 plus. More impressive was his ability to throw all of his pitches effectively. You only had to watch what would have been a record setting battle had it occurred during the regular season to know that the converted minor league starter to prime time closer indeed appears to be back in fine form.
This is none too soon either for a Cardinals pitching staff that needs a pick me up. The Cardinals, with a team ERA of 5.40, a WHIP at 1.58 and rising, needed Sunday’s performance to jump start a spring that has been plagued with pitching adversity across the board.
Hicks is expected to be on a normal reliever schedule over the remainder of the spring, meaning we should expect an inning or so every three days with the time gap decreasing as the team draws closer to breaking camp.
Shildt said that closing opportunities to open the season may be spread among a group that includes Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos – and yes, Hicks seems ready to make his spots count, as well.
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