PEORIA — When Thomas St. Clair got drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 24th round last year, the right-hander from Lenoir-Rhyne University was ready to start working toward becoming a starting pitcher for the organization.
Then the parent club threw him a curve.
They sent him to Johnson City in the Appalachian League for rookie ball — and directly to the bullpen.
So far that has worked out for the Winston-Salem, N.C., native. St. Clair pitched well enough in the first half to earn a roster spot as a reliever in the 2018 Midwest League All-Star Game.
St. Clair won't make it to that MWL showcase — instead, he was promoted by the Cardinals to high-A Palm Beach on the eve of the game Monday.
In what proved to be great foreshadowing, St. Clair talked about the All-Star berth and call-ups during Peoria's homestand last week.
"I’m not a prospect or well known, but it is an honor to get to do this, and it feels great for the confidence," he said. "I just need to keep preparing the way I’ve been preparing and continue to pitch the way I’ve been able to do.
"If it’s time for me to get called up, I’ll get called up. I view it as a long-term thing. But I’ll play this game as long as they give me a jersey."
St. Clair posted a 2-2 record with an ERA of 1.65 and a team-high five saves in 20 appearances, helping Peoria clinch a first-half wild-card playoff spot. But that isn’t what he expected when he signed a pro contract a year ago.
"When I got to Johnson City, at first I thought I was going to be a starter," St. Clair said. "But I ended up in the bullpen.
"I did get the opportunity to throw some high-leverage innings, coming in with runners on base in close games. I did well in some of them, and struggled through some of them."
Pitching a complete season at L-R eventually took its toll last summer. In his senior year at L-R, St. Clair went 10-4 with a 2.28 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 87 innings.
"He was made a reliever right away, mainly because of innings," Chiefs pitching coach Cale Johnson said. "A lot of times, once we get a college starter into the program, we’ll try to limit their innings a little bit the first year."
Johnson, who also was the pitching coach at Johnson City last year, said he is not surprised that St. Clair was tabbed as an All-Star this season.
"His fastball is in the low 90s, and he gets a lot of swings and misses," Johnson said. "He’s also got a pretty decent curve ball, but the fastball is his best pitch.
"He’s an ultra-competitive guy, works hard, and has good stuff."
But St. Clair had to change his mentality once he became a reliever.
"As a starter in college, my main mentality was to go out there and throw the ball as hard as I could for as long as I could," he said. "I never viewed my pitching like I need to throw this many innings and get this many outs. I view it as each pitch had to have purpose and intent, and I wanted to strike everybody out. That was my goal.
"My role as a reliever is to relieve the starter from whatever mess he’s in, or just come into a new inning and give the offense a chance to keep scoring runs."
St. Clair has made the transformation with the help of Johnson.
"Last year he introduced me to the new technology side of pitching – spin rates and spin axis," St. Clair said. "I use that more in how I’m pitching than my velocity.
"I’ve had more success executing pitches where I need to execute them, and that’s been my biggest success factor lately."
Johnny Campos can be reached at 686-3214 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JohnnyCampos59.