When Jonathan Cornelius woke up Monday morning, he didn't know he'd be starting for Class A Advanced Palm Beach later that night. But he was in a much better state of mind than he had been 24 hours earlier.
With the Cardinals off on Sunday, he visited former college teammate Randall Thompson. The two had played together at Florida Tech, where they competed for the coveted Friday spot in the Panthers rotation, and Cornelius, who held a 5.32 ERA at the time, turned once again to his friend to talk shop.
"Even though we used to battle it out, we do a great job of supporting each other," he said. "He just reminded me that I've always been good at the mental side of the game. That really seemed to help me because I was just feeling really focused all day long today."
After getting the call that he would make the spot start, Cornelius delivered a stat line that definitely reflected that sentiment.
Cornelius (1-1) allowed just one hit and struck out four in seven innings to lead the Cardinals in a 7-0 win over Lakeland at Roger Dean Stadium.
The 24-year-old left-hander retired the first 12 Flying Tigers he faced before giving up a leadoff hit to Mike Hernandez in the fifth. In all, 12 of the 21 outs he produced came on the ground, although that wasn't a surprise given his specialty.
"I really had the sinker going early," he said. "Juan Castillo was my catcher, and he likes to call a lot of fastballs. So once I kind of settled in a groove with my sinking fastball in those early innings, I really tried to build off that."
The outing was the longest of Cornelius' Minor League career, besting a 6 2/3-inning long effort last May 28 for Class A Quad Cities. It was also his first Class A Advanced victory and the first at any level since that same 16-6 victory for the River Bandits against Cedar Rapids nearly one year ago.
After making seven starts in the Quad Cities rotation last season, the southpaw has worked nearly exclusively as the longman out of the bullpen. He held a 5.32 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP in the Florida State League through eight appearances, two of them starts, entering Monday.
Despite the struggles, Cornelius never doubted he could deliver as he did in a pinch against Lakeland. When scheduled starter Tim Cooney made the move to Double-A Springfield, he got his chance to prove it.
"I always feel like I'm capable of being lights-out when I take the mound, like anybody else," said the Florida native, who dropped his ERA to 4.03 with the gem. "I didn't even know I was starting until the morning, but after that, I was feeling calm and confident all day and really felt more focused. I tried carrying that into the start, and it worked."
With the best statistical start of his career under his belt, Cornelius hopes he's caught the attention of both Palm Beach and the higher-ups in St. Louis as a pitcher who could bring an innings-eating arm anywhere he goes.
"Whether they decide to keep me in the rotation or put me back as the long guy in the 'pen, it doesn't matter to me," he said. "Hopefully, something like tonight shows the organization that I can still go deep and do it well, and I feel like that's definitely a valuable to any team."
First baseman Jonathan Rodriguez and left fielder Anthony Garcia drove in two runs apiece. Leadoff man Nick Longmire went 2-for-5 with a run scored and a stolen base.