A third season in the Minors meant a new third pitch for John Gast, and on Tuesday it all added up to his fourth win.
Gast posted his best line of the season and Oscar Taveras hit his ninth homer as Double-A Springfield shut out Arkansas, 4-0, on Tuesday afternoon.
Gast, who added a curveball to his fastball-changeup combo this winter, lowered his ERA to 2.03 after holding the Travelers to five hits and a walk over seven scoreless innings. He struck out five, throwing 60 of his 93 pitches for strikes in his seventh start this season.
"It was just getting ahead of hitters, getting strikeouts down, and my fastball command was right there," he said. "I was able to get a bunch of ground balls."
The left-hander out of Florida State entered the season ranked as the Cardinals' top southpaw in the Minors after reaching Double-A in his first full season in 2011. With Springfield last season, he went 4-4 with a 4.08 ERA in 13 starts after a promotion from Class A Advanced Palm Beach.
St. Louis' sixth-round pick from 2010 did all that with just a pair of pitches. This year, he's cut his Double-A ERA in half.
"I think last year I was relying a little more on two pitches, and this year I've worked on my curveball a lot in the offseason," he said. "When you're just throwing two pitches, they can eliminate one of them -- 'I won't swing at a changeup' -- so being able to offer three pitches that are all pretty decent, it's been a real big help."
Gast also got help from his bullpen and the system's top hitting prospect.
Sam Freeman struck out the side in the eighth and Eric Fornataro added another strikeout in a perfect ninth to seal the five-hitter for Springfield.
Taveras, Springfield's center fielder, slugged his ninth homer in the eighth inning, a three-run shot off Travs reliever Chris Scholl that moved him into a tie for second place in the Texas League in home runs.
For Gast, consistency this season has been a big different, and the stats back that up -- he's held opponents to three runs or fewer in all seven starts.
"It's just being able to throw a lot of strikes down in the zone and being consistent with that," he said. "That's been the biggest key. Last year I was a little more spotty -- I had a few good starts and then a bad one. So now I'm just focusing on being more consistent."
Gast worked without a lead for the first four innings before Kyle Conley delivered a go-ahead RBI single in the fourth. Gast said the low scoring affair worked to his advantage in a way.
"I hate to say it, but keeping the game rolling helps a lot instead of sitting for 20 minutes while they score some runs," he said. "But the pace of the game helps to get you into a rhythm. You just try to go out and get three quick outs."
Giving up the ball after seven innings wasn't easy, but Gast knew his pitch count had started closing in on triple digits.
"Obviously I want to go out and throw as many innings as I can," he said. "I noticed they were getting someone warm, after I worked that inning. I kind of understood the inning was a little longer with the walk -- I threw about 10 pitches to [Jeremy] Cruz -- so I knew I maybe threw 22 pitches in my last inning."
Taveras' homer in the eighth was the fourth long ball for the Dominican prospect in his last 10 games. Gast said it's been a treat to watch the 19-year-old.
"He's awesome. I haven't gotten to play with him until now, but you hear people talk about guys in the offseason, during Spring Training," Gast said. "You get to watch him play, it's awesome, he's outstanding."
As for Gast's future with the reigning World Series champs, he knows the path will only get easier if he can post more outings like Tuesday's.
"I think you can look and see I get hurt by giving up home runs, and that's one aspect I can improve on," said Gast, who's allowed five roundtrippers this season. "Not making those mistakes over the plate with runners on and cutting down on walks, I think that'll help anybody. You can never have too few walks."
Gast overshadowed a fine outing by Arkansas starter A.J. Schugel (1-4), who allowed one run on three hits and three walks over six innings.