Shelby Miller, the Cardinals' first-round Draft pick in 2009, was supposed to be good. But this good, this quickly?
The Cardinals are not complaining.
Miller, who will take the mound for his fifth Major League start Sunday against the Pirates, won the fifth spot out of the starting rotation in Spring Training and instantly threw his name into the National League Rookie of the Year race.
With a 3-1 record, 1.44 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 25 innings, the 22-year-old has also added his name into the very early, still-young Cy Young Award race.
"He has a different look than the majority of guys we have on the staff and a lot of other guys in the league," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "He's keeping people off balance with that and made some room with his other pitches."
With late movement on his fastball, averaging nearly 93 mph this season, Miller also adds a ferocious curve that he throws about one in five pitches. While he mixed in his changeup during a brief stint in the Majors last season, Miller has hardly thrown it this year, according to fangraphs.com.
MLB.com's 25th-ranked prospect entering 2013, Miller is holding opponents to a .157 average. He held the Pirates to two runs over six innings, striking out six during an April 17 start.
Miller will have to face a Pirates team that might be starting to hit its stride this season, having scored at least five runs in three of its last four games.
The Pirates, who have won eight of their last 11, send Jeff Locke to the mound as he looks to build on his best start as a Major Leaguer, when he shut out the Phillies over six innings.
Locke, traded from the Braves in 2009 as part of the deal that sent Nate McLouth to Atlanta, has spent parts of the past three seasons in the Majors, compiling a 5.20 ERA over 72 2/3 innings. Locke is hoping to transfer his success from Triple-A Indianapolis, where he posted a 2.44 ERA with 156 strikeouts in 170 innings from 2011-2012.
In four starts for the Pirates this year, Locke is 2-1 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.43 WHIP.
Cardinals: Freese gets mental day
David Freese, in the middle of his worst month at the plate since he first made a Major League appearance in April 2009, got the day off Saturday as Matt Carpenter took his spot at third base.
Freese is still homerless through 42 at-bats this season, hitting .190.
"Right now, he's just pressing," Matheny said. "Everybody goes through this. It's not a panic situation. Today is an opportunity to get some work and try and get your mind right."
Freese is expected to be back in the lineup Sunday.
Pirates: Alvarez finding his groove
The Pirates were having a third-base issue of their own during the first half of April, when Pedro Alvarez was hitting .089 with zero extra-base hits as of April 17.
Since then, Alvarez is hitting .344 (11-for-32) with five home runs in nine games.
With two more hits Saturday, the 26-year-old has collected at least two hits in four of his last five games.
• The Cardinals, originally expected to make a decision on whether injured closer Jason Motte would need Tommy John surgery, will likely push the deadline back a little further after Motte threw successfully from 30 to 40 feet Saturday morning. Motte said the way his elbow responded over the next 48 hours would serve as a better gauge for his progress.
• Pirates lefty Jonathan Sanchez was suspended six games by Major League Baseball for intentionally throwing at Allen Craig on Friday night. Sanchez, who was also fined, appealed the suspension.
• Travis Snider was a late scratch from the Pirates' lineup Saturday because of discomfort on his right side. He was to be re-evaluated after the game.
With Snider's and Neil Walker's (right index knuckle gash) status, the Pirates will go with a three-man bench for the second straight game Sunday. Because of that limitation, they had two pitchers pinch-hit Saturday: James McDonald struck out trying to bunt in the seventh, and Wandy Rodriguez singled in the ninth.