Cardinals 'concerned' about relief pitching

WASHINGTON -- Brett Cecil has had a habit of starting slowly in recent seasons. In each of the previous three campaigns, he had an ERA north of 5.00 by the end of April.

Barring something of a miracle, the relief pitcher will have even uglier numbers when this month ends. Cecil, the St. Louis Cardinals' newest lefty, is 0-1 with a 15.00 ERA and already has given up seven hits, a home run and two walks in just three innings.

There is, however, a crucial difference between his three previous seasons and this slow start. With the Toronto Blue Jays, Cecil had banked a half-dozen years of goodwill as a durable and dependable member of the team's pitching staff. Now, he is trying to show his new fan base, front office and teammates that he deserved the four-year, $30.5 million contract the Cardinals gave him in December.

"I've been that guy on a new team," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "You want to go in and show you're going to bring value to a club and help get it to where we all collectively want to get. He's had one of those starts to a season. We know what kind of pitcher he is and what kind of pitcher he's going to be for us. We've just got to get it started, and hopefully sooner rather than later."

Asked if he was feeling the pressure of his contract, Cecil said, "I didn't before, but I do now."

It has been a swirl of new experiences for Cecil, each of them hurting his performance in some way. He is pitching in the National League for the first time after eight seasons pitching in the American League East. He thinks hitters can pick up a pitcher's tendencies more easily than vice versa. He also suspects former teammates and opponents from the AL East have been helping their new teams get a handle on his pitching patterns.

He's also simply not sharp. In Monday night's game at Washington, Cecil broke 90 mph with just one of his 20 pitches, and his curveball didn't have its typical depth or bite. The diminished stuff arises, he thinks, from a mechanical flaw: His shoulder and hips are driving the ball toward home plate before his right foot lands, depriving him of crucial leverage. It affects velocity, which ideally would be in the 91 to 93 mph range, as well as breaking-ball effectiveness.

"It's just milliseconds off that need to be fixed," he said. "It's my stubbornness, wanting to get to the plate so quick and have a lot on the ball. It's a patience thing with me, and I'm very impatient."

Cecil now realizes he got off on the wrong foot with his team's famously adoring fan base. For a reliever who typically pitches 60 innings or fewer in an entire season, starting off poorly can make the entire season an uphill slog, with an ERA and other numbers remaining stubbornly bloated. He said he could understand if some Cardinals fans already have lost confidence in him.

"If I knew what a good ERA was and then I saw something in double digits, I'd be like, 'What the hell.' I'd be doing the same thing," Cecil said.

Cecil's struggles are a microcosm for a Cardinals bullpen that the team has quickly identified as the most troubling aspect of its slow start. St. Louis is 2-6 after Tuesday's 8-3 loss to the Nationals, and Cardinals relievers collectively have an 8.14 ERA and 1.88 WHIP, the worst numbers in the National League.

Closer Seung-Hwan Oh, in an early sophomore slump, got things off to a rocky start by giving up a three-run home run to Kyle Schwarber that tied the score on opening night against the Chicago Cubs. Oh has allowed six hits, including two home runs and two doubles, in 3⅔ innings. Jonathan Broxton, perhaps wearing down after 12 seasons in the major leagues, has a 16.88 ERA and 3.00 WHIP and is struggling to find the strike zone. Kevin Siegrist, one of the most underrated relievers in the game in recent seasons, has a 19.29 ERA.

Among relievers, only youngsters Matt Bowman and Miguel Socolovich and former closer Trevor Rosenthal are performing well, and Rosenthal has had just one appearance.

The Cardinals are approaching the problem with a sense of urgency, while realizing the sample size might not be large enough to gain much insight. Expect Matheny to switch some roles around in the short term. If things go on like this deeper into the season, expect general manager John Mozeliak to get involved. Mozeliak is keen on several of the team's top pitching prospects, including triple-digit thrower Sandy Alcantara at Double-A, and wouldn't hesitate to use one of them in a relief role this season.

"I'm concerned, but I also realize it is still too early to panic," Mozeliak said.

Meanwhile, each of the pitchers does what he can to get back into a more comfortable rhythm. Cecil plays catch with Broxton every day, mimicking his delivery and exaggerating the feeling of getting his front foot down before releasing the ball. By overcompensating in practice, he hopes he can one day make it second nature when he gets back in a game. He also talks nearly every night to his father for advice.

"The last two to three years, I've gotten off to slow starts. I'm hoping that window keeps shrinking for me," he said. "By the end of April last year, I was throwing 93 [mph] consistently, touching 94 and 95, then I tore my lat [muscle]. It's nothing where I'm panicking, like I need to change everything. I know it's just very minute things."

In the small-sample world of relief pitching and the opening weeks of a season, little things can lead to big issues.