How Miles Mikolas learned in Japan to 'stay within himself' – and the strike zone

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·Yahoo Sports Contributor
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  • Miles Mikolas
    Miles Mikolas
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas returned from Japan and became an All-Star in 2018. (AP)
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas returned from Japan and became an All-Star in 2018. (AP)

LOS ANGELES – They made the decision during, of all times, their honeymoon.

That’s when Miles Mikolas and his wife, Lauren, decided in Cancun, Mexico, to pack up their bags and move to Japan.

“It’s like our first life decision,” Miles told Yahoo Sports. “But we talked about it and were like, ‘Hey, this will be an opportunity to really go out and put ourselves in a unique situation and try to have as much fun with it as we can.'”

And have fun with it, they did.

It was a needed change for Miles, whose journey to the top of the injury-plagued St. Louis Cardinals‘ 2018 rotation began with a lackluster stint around the majors from 2012-2014. In Japan, he played from 2015-2017 for the Yomiuri Giants of the Nippon Professional Baseball League, and then returned stateside an All-Star.

The American duo stood out in Tokyo; Miles is 6-foot-5 with “bushy” hair, and his wife, Lauren, made waves just by showing up to his games. In Japan, she once told Cardinals Magazine, players’ wives see baseball as more of a traditional job, and don’t want to “step on their husband’s toes.”

Miles’ story is similar to that of the Brewers’ Eric Thames, who emerged from South Korea a bonafide MLB slugger in 2017. Similar, except that Thames ventured abroad solo, while the fame of Miles’ wife in Japan outpaced his own.

Japanese fans quickly became infatuated with Lauren, who landed endorsement deals and commercials that aired across Asia. She at times required a security detail to walk her through the ballpark.

“They were really into me, and then they were even more into her at one point. This beautiful woman comes over and her husband just happens to be playing baseball, and they loved it,” Miles said, noting that Lauren once served as a UFC ring girl, and the spokesperson for a face wash and a Japanese health supplement. “And that was part of the decision we made, like, ‘Hey, let’s just see how far we can go over there. Let’s have a blast. We’re young, we can kind of just of go out there and do whatever.'”

Now heading into his final August start, Miles hasn’t recorded a loss in two months – and his team has played .615 baseball since his last one on June 29. His mark of 1.44 walks per nine innings now leads the National League, and overall he’s 13-3 with a sub-3 ERA.

Mikolas wore his NPB nickname of “Mik” on his Players’ Weekend jersey. (AP)
Mikolas wore his NPB nickname of “Mik” on his Players’ Weekend jersey. (AP)

Despite the prospect of saving his career, hailing from Jupiter, Florida, Miles wasn’t exactly thrilled to move to a big city when they made the decision. On the plus side, he could easily get a steak, tacos or pizza whenever he pleased.

“It wasn’t hard to go find something that made you feel a little more at home,” he said. And he’d venture out of Tokyo, often to Sapporo or Miyazaki, for his favorite Japanese dishes.

But the Mikolas family’s celebrity status spoke to baseball culture at large in Japan, where there aren’t other major professional sports to split attention.

“I think the way that they love baseball, and they embrace it, and they cheer for it, is one of the top reasons that makes playing over there so much fun,” Mikolas explained. “They’re sold out, 40,000, horns, trumpets, waving flags, making noise – and that’s from Opening Day all the way to the last game of the season. Whether you’re in or out of it, they’re just, they’re all going ‘no quit,’ which makes it a whole lot of fun.

“Here, you go to a place like – I don’t want to call out teams – but you go to certain places and there’s not a lot of fans there, you can almost hear the crickets at night. So it makes you miss that hyped-up atmosphere just a little bit.”

But the atmosphere isn’t the only thing he misses. In Japan, teams generally use a six-man rotation, and starters who are not scheduled to pitch on a given road trip don’t travel with the team.

After Lauren had their first child in the U.S. in 2016, she and their daughter came back to join Miles in Japan, and he valued the time his schedule allowed to spend with them.

“That Japanese pitcher schedule over there is really pitcher friendly, and family friendly,” he said. “Being able to kind of hang back and stay in Tokyo with your family and go to Yomiuriland, and just kind of practice – that’s huge. And that would be the one thing that I would probably miss the most, is how much do you get to spend with your family there. It’s a little bit tougher here because you travel so much, but that’s part of the game. So you just kind of learn to live with it.”

Despite the extra days off for pitchers between starts, the Japanese style of training is anything but leisurely. As has been well-documented throughout dual-NPB and MLB star Ichiro Suzuki’s career in particular, the league focuses heavily on precise-and-grueling repetition as a method of practice.

“They don’t really take it easy very often over there, which is kinda neat. It’s nice to see guys go all out that much with the practicing,” Mikolas said. “I think there’s a fine line there [between quality versus quantity], and I think it’s different for each player. I think some guys need more repetition and other guys, if they have too much repetition, they start to think too much about stuff and mechanics. Sometimes all that repetition can mess a guy up … So kind of a ‘different strokes for different folks.'”

Mikolas says he has always navigated that fine line, adjusting as necessary. But one of the first major adjustments while abroad, as counterintuitive as it may seem, was that then-Giants manager Tatsunori Hara suggested he relax in games.

“My bullpen is very relaxed, and I was hitting all my spots really well, and everything was kind of nice and easy,” Mikolas said. “And he asked me why I don’t throw like that on the field, like why I’m trying so hard when I’m out there.”

While in Japan, Miles Mikolas (left) learned from his teammates to be more balanced on the mound. (AP)
While in Japan, Miles Mikolas (left) learned from his teammates to be more balanced on the mound. (AP)

However, the all-dirt infields and the lower, softer mounds of the NPB also necessitated a change in mechanics.

“I had to learn pretty quickly my first time on those mounds; like I’m gonna have to get my arm up to get my foot down faster. I need to stay back, or stay tall, in order to figure out how to work that mound,” Mikolas said. “So now I feel that during a [MLB] game, I can adjust and find my delivery a little bit quicker.”

And by watching his Japanese teammates – only by the very end of his NPB career being able to decipher what they might be saying – Mikolas also learned to stay balanced.

“Being able to watch how some of those guys use their bodies, and how they work on how much balance they have – how important that balance can be throughout not just when you pick your leg up, but balance throughout your delivery from start to finish – was kind of huge,” Mikolas said.

But the most important advice he got from Hara was impactful on multiple levels: “Stay within your little box; stay within yourself.”

From a physical standpoint, that meant actively trying to stay within a smaller area while pitching, and not falling off the mound. Before Japan, he would pitch from the far first-base side of the rubber, and now, he’s almost exactly centered.

“And then the other way, it was kind of mentally like, ‘Don’t overextend yourself, don’t try to go out and do something that you’re not capable of doing,'” Mikolas said. “Just do the things that you do, and try to do them as well as you can.”

And so by having fun, staying balanced, and being true to himself by working to perfect the same pitch arsenal he’s always used, Miles takes the lessons from Japan to heart.

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