JUPITER, Fla. • When Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals’ ace turned mentor, saw the young righthander in the PNC Park visitors’ clubhouse this past summer, Mike Mayers had his head bowed, his ERA distended and his mind reeling from another unsettling outing in the majors.
In the span of 12 hours he had been promoted, thumped for five runs in two-thirds of an inning and told to return to the minors. It was the third time in seven big-league appearances he had allowed at least that many runs in an inning or less, and he was left to wonder, as he huddled in his locker: If this is all he had, what could he give? Carpenter pulled up a chair, leaned close to the rookie and offered Mayers something he lacked.
“I just went over and gave him a reminder of who he is, what he is, and the stuff that he has,” Carpenter recalled this past week. “He was not going to have success with what he was doing, so he had to make an adjustment. He has the ability. He has the stuff. He had to make a change, and it looks like he has. His presence on the mound — looks like he wants to be there and looks like he belongs there. And he does.”
A revelation of spring, Mayers has ridden an assignment to the bullpen and a shift in mentality to leapfrog other power prospects and force the Cardinals to consider him for the big-league bullpen. If not now, soon.
The 26-year-old righthander has yet to walk a batter or allow a run in seven innings this spring, and he’s struck out nine. On Friday, against Houston, Mayers struck out the side in his first inning, pitched two suffocating innings and left manager Mike Matheny to offer a one-word evaluation: “Phenomenal.”
Gone is the pitcher who fiddled with a sinker because he thought he needed to. Gone is the pitcher who overplayed his changeup because he thought that’s what major-league pitchers did. In his place is a reliever with a fastball clocked at 98 mph last season, able to reach 99 mph. He’s eager to reintroduce himself, but first he had to find himself.
“Unfortunately it took me longer than I’d like to figure that out,” Mayers said. “What is really holding me back? I don’t have a problem in (Class AAA) Memphis. So the gap isn’t that big. You see all these young guys up there — especially last year — and have success. Why am I so different? I think a lot of it had to do with what was between the ears. … I’ve taken a mental beating, but I think it’s helped me. That adversity helped me really figure out who I want to be. It’s about understanding your identity.”
“This is what I’ve got. This is what you’re going to get,” he concluded. “That’s my mentality this spring.”
Despite heavy churn on the 40-man roster and Mayers’ 19.80 ERA in seven big-league games, the Cardinals had kept the righthander on the roster and brought him to Winter Warm-Up. Mayers attended Matheny’s Catch-22 Foundation charity event at Annie Gunn’s steakhouse, and there the manager talked about him. Matheny recognized some skepticism, and at the dinner and all winter praised Mayers and the potential he had to anyone who would listen. He wanted one person to hear: Mayers.
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A third-round pick from Ole Miss in 2013, Mayers made his big-league debut on July 24, 2016, against LA when a doubleheader forced the Cardinals to get an available starter. On Sunday Night Baseball, he did not get an out until he had already allowed a grand slam. Of the 14 Dodgers he faced that night, 10 reached base. He became the first pitcher in history to allow at least nine runs and record fewer than six outs in his debut. After 1 1/3 innings, his ERA steamed at 60.75 until a September call-up that included another six-run outing. Mayers admitted he felt like he was always pitching against that evening, trying to undo what the Dodgers had done. In 2017, he had a similar abbreviated start against the Pirates, and no September call-up came to help clean up the ERA. Searching, Mayers went to winter ball in the Dominican Republic.
There he met Willie Blair.
There, he abandoned his sinker and found relief.
Blair, a minor-league pitching coach for Detroit, knew Mayers’ numbers and watched Mayers’ bullpen session and couldn’t reconcile the two. He approached him at the hotel one day with a slight mechanical fix — stressing full extension at his release point — and helped lead Mayers to a mental one. During an interview this past week, Mayers repeated the phrase, or something similar four times: “This is what I’ve got. This is what you’re going to get.”
“That’s a big thing,” Blair said. “I’m not trying to make you into something you’re not. What I do know is they don’t get on his fastball. They don’t take good swings against it. There’s something there. It might be spin rate. It might be extension. It could be deception. There is something that makes it play up, and whatever that is, he should let it go. He’s got more talent than his numbers show.”
Mayers emphasized his fastball and slider as a starter in the Dominican. With teams quick to go to the bullpen, he pitched more aggressively.
In the majors, he averaged 93.1 mph on his fastball in 2016 and felt his sinker could go anywhere from 89 mph to 93 mph. He threw almost as many changeups as sliders, and now isn’t sure why. The move to the bullpen at Class AAA last year and affirmation in the Dominican reconnected Mayers with his higher-voltage stuff: upper-90s fastball and hard slider. This is what he’s got. This is what they were going to get.
“Subconsciously I was trying to make up for the struggles in the past,” Mayers said. “That’s not realistic. I was trying to do too much. On the slider, if you try to make it extra nasty all of sudden it pops up or it stays up or you yank it and it’s a noncompetitive pitch. I don’t have to make up for what happened, I just have to get the out now.”
This Mayers is more familiar to his longtime teammates.
And not the one they saw in the majors, not the one Carpenter approached.
“He’s just stressing his stuff, and letting it rip,” starter Luke Weaver said. “He’s a very intimidating person and gets — I don’t want to say angry — but he has that presence that he’s not going to mess around. He’s coming right after you.”
This past Friday, in relief of Miles Mikolas, Mayers buzzed through the Astros’ order. He delighted the radar guns with the 97-98 mph fastball, got strikeouts on his wasp-quick slider, and the only things unsettled about his outing were the hitters. This is what he’s got. The Cardinals have a good idea of where he’ll get. After the appearance, Mayers’ phone buzzed with a text message from Adam Wainwright. The note praised him for his dominant turn. Mayers replied with an approach that he’s had to learn, from bad to worse to good, now excellent.
“Thanks,” Mayers said he texted. “Back to work tomorrow.”