After he made a strong impression in Spring Training this year, St. Louis decided to push Seth Blair to Double-A Springfield even though he'd only thrown 101 1/3 professional innings. It was expected that Blair would struggle, but also that he would improve.
"When he started the year, he was probably a level above where he should've been," Springfield pitching coach Randy Niemann said. "You knew going in that it wouldn't be easy."
At the end of April, Blair's ERA was 8.84, but Niemann saw consistent progress in Blair's delivery, command and approach. Now three months into the season, those strides are paying dividends in the hurler's performance.
On Sunday, the Cardinals' No. 10 prospect broke through with the best start of his Minors career. While outdueling big league veteran Roy Oswalt, the right-hander allowed three hits and struck out seven over a career-high seven innings in a 5-0 win over Tulsa.
"He understands the process and he kept working hard at that," Niemann said. "Now we're starting to see the results of that work. We're very pleased and proud of the work he's put in."
Pro baseball has been a bumpy and unusual experience for the 2010 first-round (46th overall) Draft pick. Blair (3-6) struggled with his command in his 2011 debut at Class A Quad Cities, posting a 5.29 ERA with 70 strikeouts and 62 walks in 81 2/3 innings.
He came back in 2012 hoping to re-establish himself as a prized prospect, but his season was immediately derailed by shooting pains above the top knuckle in his middle finger. Doctors discovered a tumor in the finger that was causing microfractures, and surgery to remove the tumor cost the Arizona State product almost his entire season. He did put in 19 2/3 innings late in the year, mostly with Class A Advanced Palm Beach.
Despite the inexperience, Blair was so impressive stuff-wise in Spring Training, St. Louis felt the right move was to push the 24-year-old to the Texas League and let him take his lumps there.
"I think in Spring Training, we realized that not only did he have the ability to be at this level, but he had exhibited the mental capacity to handle it," Niemann said. "There were some rough spots.
"With every outing, even if the results weren't showing up, he was improving and mentally. He was staying strong and it's a credit to him that he was able to do that. He didn't let the results overwhelm him."
Hitters batted .329 against Blair and posted a 12-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 1/3 innings in April.
"With what I've gone through in the Minor Leagues, the first month of the year was a struggle," Blair said. "I didn't have the command I needed to. I've been getting better and better for the last month. Every day, it seems like I figure out something to help me through."
Blair and Niemann have worked to simplify Blair's delivery with encouraging results. He used to utilize a very old-school delivery, bringing his hands over his head, stepping back behind the rubber with his left foot and swinging that leg back toward second as he raised it.
Niemann advised him to shorten that initial stride back and asked him to lift his leg in a more vertical fashion. The goal was to help Blair maintain his posture and get more consistent with his release.
The intent was to sharpen his fastball command, and in May, that began to happen. His strikeout-to-walk ratio improved to 27-to-4 in 27 2/3 innings in May. Although he allowed seven home runs and posted an underwhelming 4.55 ERA last month, Niemann thought it was clear the right-hander was making dramatic day-to-day improvements.
Blair has now posted consecutive appearances without a home run allowed while maintaining the improved strikeout and walk numbers. His fastball command is far better than it was even in March, as are his off-speed pitches.
"He's got an overpowering curveball," Niemann said. "The issue is commanding it. He's starting to improve that a lot. We've kind of adjusted his grip and gotten him to where he can throw a slower curve and a harder one.
"He's ended up with two curveballs, and he's improved his command with both. With the changeup again, it's a plus pitch for him, but he has a tendency to fly open and lower his arm angle."
There are still quite a few things Blair must work on. His ERA this season is 5.46 through 56 innings. If the command continues to improve, though, this may not be the last time Blair tosses a gem while sharing the rubber with a Major League foe.
Oswalt (2-2) allowed three runs -- one earned -- on five hits over seven innings. He allowed a home run to Xavier Scruggs, struck out four strikeouts and walked two.
Scruggs' home run was the 100th of his professional career. He's hit 46 as a Springfield Cardinal, 12 shy of the team record of 57 set by Steven Hill.