The baseball schedule can work in mysterious ways. Right, Shelby Miller?
Following a strong rookie season, Miller pitched only one inning in the playoffs in large part because of his struggles against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cardinals opted for Joe Kelly and when he pitched well, the club saw no need to change for the ensuing rounds. The closest Miller came to taking the mound after a relief appearance in the first round was when he warmed up for mop-up duty in the last game of the World Series.
So guess where Miller will start his 2014 season on Friday night? That’s right. At PNC Park against the Pirates. This comes after Miller’s first spring training start came against the Red Sox. That was pure coincidence, manager Mike Matheny said.
Opening against the Pirates isn’t so much coincidence as how the Cardinals’ skipper lined up his rotation. Miller’s spring performance was fourth best among Cardinals starters — those who made the rotation, anyway — and he gets the fourth start of the season.
Whether it’s the Pirates or any other team, opponents should expect to see Miller pitch even better than in 2013. The 6-foot-4 right-hander was very good, too, even though his 3.06 ERA and 15-9 record became somewhat overshadowed by Michael Wacha’s October dominance.
Ace Adam Wainwright has taken it upon himself to ensure that Miller’s work was appreciated. When asked how much he was impressed by Wacha’s work last year, Wainwright brought up Miller.
"I was more impressed with Shelby’s season as a whole," Wainwright said. "Michael’s season, I rate as his postseason, really. How many starts did he make (nine in the regular season)? I think lost in the shuffle was Shelby’s season, where he won 15 games and was a Rookie of the Year candidate."
Miller believes the lessons he learned making 31 starts as a 22-year-old will pay off in his second season.
"The biggest thing was learning that you have to find out how to pitch when you don’t have your best stuff," he said. "You have to battle, get through the games and help your team win however you can. With a full year under my belt, I know myself better."
So how does one handle those days when his stuff is lacking?
"Fall back on Yadi and trust what he calls," said Miller, adding that really isn’t much different than any other start. The Cardinals trust their Gold Glove catcher, Yadier Molina, whether their stuff is on or off.
Even when Miller scuffled last year, he usually kept the Cardinals in the game. He just wouldn’t be able to keep them in the game for as long as he wanted because his pitch count would get away from him. Other times, though, he says his focus would wane later rather than sooner.
"In Cincinnati (last September), I was dominating through five innings: eight Ks, no walks, no runs. I thought I was going to throw a complete game," Miller said. "Then I went out for the sixth and gave up three runs and was pulled. That’s a lack of focus, a rookie mistake.
"You see veterans focus on every single pitch, whereas I would have the game made up in my head and let it get away from me. Stuff like that is what I want to improve."
Miller is growing up in the teammate department, too. Matheny said Miller jumped "all over" a chance to mentor some of the club’s young minor leaguers early in spring training. Assigned a group of pitchers to lead in drills, Miller did his best impersonation of a veteran.
"Just trying to set an example and show a little bit of the Cardinals Way," said Miller, almost uncomfortably. He made it clear that while someday he wants to be a clubhouse leader, he’s years away from taking a Wainwright-like role.
"I know how to take care of my business around here, how to act, how to respect the veteran guys," he said. "By no means am I a veteran player."
Miller has the stuff to pitch like a veteran. He says he has become more comfortable with a cutter he started throwing last season. The curveball he showed in spring training wowed Matheny enough to say "that’s going to be a fun pitch for him to play with." And, of course, there’s the 95-mph fastball that has become a staple among most of the Cardinals’ young pitchers.
"I feel like I’m in a good spot with all my pitches," Miller said late in spring training. "I’m ready to go for a long season. My body feels good, but you can never tell ’til you actually get there."
He’s almost there, ready to start 2014 against the team that pretty much finished his 2013.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.