LOS ANGELES – Shelby Miller looped a purple tie, pulled the wide end through, realized it was going to be too long and unraveled the whole thing. He looped it again, pulled the wide end through and it was too short. He sighed. He lifted the whole thing over his head, untied it, flipped the offending neckwear into his locker and patted down his collar.
"What's up?" he asked.
Sometimes it's best just to walk away for a bit and attack a problem from a new angle with a fresh mind.
Miller had just gone 5 1/3 hard innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He spoke softly. He'd managed to match Clayton Kershaw for the most part, put the game into the arms of his bullpen and watch as the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Dodgers on their way out of town.
His curveball was better, he said. His fastball command still isn't quite what he wanted. It's still big – he ran it up to 97 mph when the big boys came along in the middle innings with men on base – but not as precise as he'd like.
He'll come back in a few days, work on it in the bullpen, then try again on Friday night against the San Francisco Giants. These things take time. He's 22. He's been doing this – here, in the big leagues, for the Cardinals, against these lineups – since early September.
But he walked off after the fifth inning having allowed a run-scoring single to Adrian Gonzalez on a 97-mph fastball on the inner half that should have beat Gonzalez, but didn't, and he was livid. Catcher Yadier Molina met him near the dugout, told him it was a good pitch, and Miller wouldn't hear it. He shook his head, stomped down the steps, his free fist balled.
"The best pitch I threw all day," Miller said.
Ten starts into his first full season, Miller's ERA is 2.02. He's won five games. The Cardinals have won seven of them. He's formed a working relationship with Adam Wainwright, and he's learned quickly to trust Molina, as all pitchers do. Of the thousand or so pitches Molina has called for Miller, Miller, by his estimate, has shaken him "a couple times maybe."
"He's doing a great job with me," Miller said. "Stick with him, things are bound to go well."
Around him, the Cardinals packed for Kansas City. They've won 32 games, many of them like this, with just enough starting pitching and a little bit of offense from everywhere. Miller is learning to be like them, resourceful like them, relentless like them. He has great stuff, but even a 97 mph fastball can cost you a run. In the first inning, a fastball at 95 had actually cost him two, because Adrian Gonzalez doesn't miss middle-middle fastballs very often, and he hit that one over the fence. Barely more than two weeks ago, Miller had faced 28 Colorado Rockies over nine innings. The first one singled. The next 27 went down in order, 13 by strikeouts.
That's the guy he seeks, again and again. The near-perfect guy who spins that tight curveball at will, who could pick out and hit a lace on Molina's mitt with that ferocious fastball, who will master that changeup.
He didn't spend much time watching Kershaw on Sunday afternoon, but that's what Miller could be chasing, something like that. Kershaw wasn't quite himself against the Cardinals. He'd given back a two-run lead. Then he'd allowed the Cardinals to break a seventh-inning tie. Some was bad luck. Some was poor location.
Two days prior, as he does two days before every start, Kershaw had gone alone to the bullpen where he pulled back a corner of the tarp that covered the mounds. He cupped his left hand, though he held no ball. He stared toward the plate, where there was no hitter. Or catcher. He glanced over his left shoulder once, then again, yet there was no baserunner.
"A little visualization," Kershaw would say with a grin.
With no ball or catcher, dressed in shorts and T-shirt, he'd throw a pitch. A perfect one. Then another. Always checking the imaginary man leading off the imaginary base behind him, he'd thrown maybe a dozen pitches from the stretch. He'd thrown another handful from the windup.
When he was done, he'd replaced the tarp, left the bullpen, closed the door behind him, having drawn that much closer to his start against the Cardinals.
"It was cool to go up against him," Miller said.
Kershaw and Miller shared a mound Sunday afternoon, and they shared some aggravation, and some brilliance, and some dabs of disappointment. It's a hard game that Kershaw has come closer to mastering, though every day it starts over. A pitch thrown with all good intentions gets ripped down the left-field line, and three runs are in, and a first-inning lead won't ever be back, and Kershaw is left near the mound pecking at the infield grass with his toe. Then a perfect pitch is thrown and it is lobbed into center field, and another lead is gone, this one the Cardinals', and Miller can barely look his catcher in the eye.
Looking back on those 5 1/3 innings, on seven hits allowed and three runs scored, Miller said, "I feel a little off. But not much."
The pitcher's duel – Kershaw vs. Miller – lasted about 20 minutes. The rest was survival. About who would hang in there the longest, and whose offense would find a momentary soft spot. Still, it was riveting, watching Miller grow another inch or two, watching Kershaw lean back on all those inches he's already covered.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny grinned.
"Let's not be making a lot of comparisons between Shelby and Kershaw right now," he said. "What we have on our hands is a young pitcher who's going out and doing a really good job.
"He's making some strides in the right direction. He knows he has a lot of work to do and we have a long season ahead of us."
He's 22. He's just started. There is much more to learn, to do.
For the moment, he's going to start on that purple tie.
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