Cardinals' rookie pitcher is carving up opposition hitters

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

A month ago, Jason Simontacchi was a no-name emergency fill-in pitcher with a vagabond resume who got a shot with the St. Louis Cardinals only because most of the rotation was on the disabled list.

After only seven major league starts, the 28-year-old rookie has become indispensable. Simontacchi, discarded by three organizations and reduced to pitching in Italy two years ago, has a 5-0 record and 2.45 ERA, best on the staff. It's been an amazing success story for the former 21st-round draft pick who didn't make it to Triple A until last year.

"I have confidence, no doubt," Simontacchi said. "When you're rolling like this, you just kind of keep going and keep going. You try not to change things and get too big-headed."

Spoken like a player who's seen plenty of lean times. He has pitched for three Class A teams, plus an Independent League outfit, and last year at this time, he was in the Minnesota Twins' organization, seemingly with no prospects, en route to a 7-13 record and 5.34 ERA.

"At about this time I'm playing for Edmonton and not making pretty much any money," Simontacchi said. "Losing money, actually."

He thrived in Italy, though, going 12-1 with a 1.71 ERA. That was enough to earn him a spot on that country's Olympic team, and he was 1-1 with a 1.17 ERA in the 2000 Sydney Games, pitching in relief against the United States. The Cardinals signed him as a minor league free agent in January, but gave him only a brief relief stint in a split-squad spring training game.

Simontacchi's emergence is similar to the meteoric rise of St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, the NFL's MVP two of the last three seasons. Before getting the call from the Rams, Warner bided his time working at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Iowa.

"I hope it turns out to be a Kurt Warner story because it's certainly starting out that way," manager Tony La Russa said. "To be Kurt Warner, you have to keep going and then win a couple of games in October.

"But he's been incredible."

There's at least one other similarity to the two stories. Like Warner, Simontacchi is a born-again Christian. He said he got religion about a week before the Cardinals called him up from Triple-A Memphis last month and inserted him in the rotation as their 11th starting pitcher this year.

"I honestly believe I wouldn't be where I am right now," Simontacchi said. "It's made my life a lot easier."

Simontacchi is the first St. Louis pitcher to begin his career 5-0 since Cuban defector Rene Arocha also won his first five games in 1993. His latest victim was the Kansas City Royals, who got two runs and no extra help -- Simontacchi had zero walks -- in 6 1-3 innings.

"He definitely kept us off-balance," said the Royals' Joe Randa. "He was effective with all of his pitches, and he proved he belongs up here."

Simontacchi gives pitching coach Dave Duncan a lot of credit for his improbable rise.

"This is the first time I've ever had scouting reports like this, where they tell you if the guy is a first-pitch swinger or a pull guy," Simontacchi said. "We watch tapes of these guys and you just kind of see what their tendencies are."

When Simontacchi first arrived, he was, typically, just happy to be in the major leagues.

"I've watched them here and there on TV, and now they're my teammates," Simontacchi said. "That was probably the biggest thing."

At first, he was all too willing to totally defer to his catcher. Not anymore. Like a crafty veteran, he shook off plenty of signs against the Royals, sometimes just for show.

Beating the Braves in his May 4 debut with seven strong innings, and following up with victories over the Astros, Pirates and Reds can have that effect. He beat the Astros 3-1 May 21 on 10 days rest. In his latest outing he ignored a blister on his index finger that had limited his previous appearance to five innings.

"I think he's feeling a little more comfortable in the fact he doesn't have to throw every pitch I call," Mike Matheny said. "He'll call his game. I think he's starting to trust himself, and that's just going to make him a better pitcher."

Simontacchi has become so comfortable that he even called off Matheny on a foul pop fly behind home plate in his last start, a no-no for a pitcher. La Russa said Simontacchi would get a fine for his troubles, and Matheny was shocked.

"It's pretty surprising to look around and see my pitcher," Matheny said. "But he's in the game. Deep down he plays the game hard and it's hard to get on a guy like that."

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