Under the Radar John Gant Shines in Diverse Role

photo: John Gant (Kim Klement/Imagn)

Monday’s home opener for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the St. Louis Cardinals was an undisciplined game played in cold temperatures. It seemed as if more umpires, catchers and batters were struck by errant baseballs and swung bats than there were clean hits in a laborious contest that extended through 11 innings and required almost five hours to complete.

John Gant (Steve Mitchell/Imagn)

St. Louis eventually prevailed, 6-5, as pitcher John Gant made the slim one-run lead gained by his Cardinals teammates in the top of the 11th hold up. The clean bottom of the frame was punctuated by an extremely sharp 4-6-3 double play begun by second baseman Kolten Wong.

After being outpitched by Dakota Hudson in spring training, Gant was seemingly designated to fulfill the role of the ideally infrequently-used long man out of the Cardinals bullpen to open the regular season. After all, in an uneven spring overall for St. Louis, the rotation had been St. Louis’ clear strength with an aggregate ERA that was fourth-lowest in the 15-team Grapefruit League.

However, with Adam Wainwright starting on Monday and struggling through four innings, one would not have been surprised to see Gant take the fifth and sixth, and perhaps even the seventh inning.

Instead, likely with an eye on Tuesday’s scheduled day off, Mike Shildt went in a completely different direction, taking an all hands on deck approach to try to secure just St. Louis’ second win in five attempts this season. The manager utilized all five position player reserves and almost emptied his bullpen, as well. Five of his seven available relievers had been exhausted before he called on Gant in the 11th. (Only Alex Reyes did not pitch.)

As Gant did his job in the final inning, the 26-year old secured the save. It was the first of his Major League career, which began in 2016 with the Atlanta Braves. It was also Gant’s initial save as a professional, which started with the Gulf Coast League Mets in 2011 and now includes 156 games on the mound, the vast majority of which occurred with him as the starting pitcher.

Given his new long relief role, who could have predicted that Gant would be the one to secure the Cardinals’ first save of 2019?

In fact, Gant had also picked up the club’s first win of the season, with 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief on Saturday in Milwaukee. Ironically, he was backing up Hudson, whose results that day (four runs in 4 1/3 innings), were very similar to Wainwright’s debut (four runs in four frames). In a very disappointing first turn through the rotation, St. Louis’ starters’ aggregate ERA of 6.46 is 14th of the 15 NL teams and 27th of 30 MLB clubs currently.

I sensed Gant’s season-opening win-save double of sorts was unusual, but was surprised when researcher Tom Orf informed me that Seung-hwan Oh had also collected St. Louis’ first win and first save of 2017.

However, Orf could not find another such instance from a Cardinals pitcher over the “prior few decades.”

It serves as an important reminder that every player, no matter his role, can be a significant contributor.

Gant’s gains

Acquired from Atlanta with two other players (who are no longer in the organization) in the Jaime Garcia trade in December 2016, Gant had already pitched 50 innings with the Braves that prior season, in a mix of starting and relieving.

The Georgia native who grew up in Florida had always been solid but unspectacular since being the Mets’ 21st-rounder in 2011. Gant did log seven double-digit strikeout games in the minors, featuring a notable change up he calls “The Vulcan”.

Still, Gant’s only seasons as a minor league all-star were early – in A-ball, in the 2013 New York-Penn League and the 2014 Sally League. Gant had been traded before, moving to the Braves in a four-player deal in July 2015 that included major leaguers Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson.

Gant twice ranked among Baseball America’s top team prospects, ranking 16th for Atlanta following the 2015 season and 27th for St. Louis just after the second trade, in the winter of 2016-2017. However, he never garnered national top 100 recognition.

John Gant (Memphis Redbirds)

The right-hander spent much of his first season as a Cardinal, 2017, in the rotation at Triple-A Memphis, other than a week in early June and as part of the September call-ups to close the season. Gant posted a solid 3.83 ERA in 18 starts for the Pacific Coast League champions. That final month of 2017, he tossed five scoreless innings for St. Louis.

In 2018, Gant did not make the Cardinals out of spring training, but went on to become a very valuable performer. He appeared in 26 games, including 19 starts, over three stints with St. Louis.

Just as Jack Flaherty earlier had stepped into the rotation for injured Adam Wainwright, Gant took over when Michael Wacha went down. 13 of his 19 starts for St. Louis came after the All-Star break, as Gant went 5-6 with 3.61 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 97 1/3 innings while holding opponents to a collective .219 batting average against.

Change in status for 2019

However, 2018 also represented Gant’s third and final minor league option year. No longer could he be among those shuffled to Memphis when the roster became tight. If exposed to waivers, he surely would be snapped up by another organization.

With a full rotation and a number of young pitching prospects pushing up from below, Gant’s spot in St. Louis to open this season was far from assured. During the off-season, some fans went as far as suggesting he should be traded so he could receive a better chance elsewhere while freeing up a roster spot for another.

The Cardinals were more forward-thinking than that, however, realizing that pitching depth will be valued over a long season. In 2018, for example, 11 different pitchers started at least one game for St. Louis – including Gant, of course.

Sure enough, this spring, that depth was immediately tested, as Carlos Martinez’ shoulder problems persisted. Gant entered a four-man camp battle to fill in for Martinez, along with Hudson and former prospects Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon. The latter two fell by the wayside first, leaving Hudson and Gant.

While Gant did not pitch poorly, posting a 3.86 ERA in six appearances, including four starts, Hudson was even more effective with his 1.25 ERA over the same quantity of outings. Hudson was declared the winner even before Gant’s final start of the spring on March 22. However, at the same time, Shildt announced that Gant would make the team as a reliever and since has labeled him his “Swiss Army knife,” due to his versatility.

It has been a strong and diverse first week of the 2019 season for a pitcher who I have believed for some time has been the most underrated hurler on the staff.

In fact, I publicly expressed my opinion on the matter back on February 23, just as spring training games began. So far, Gant is making my point with his mound results.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com or for fastest turnaround, pose your questions on The Cardinal Nation’s members-only forum. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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