ST. LOUIS — The last time the major leagues saw Miles Mikolas before this season, the right-hander was a career minor-league reliever who was learning how to become a starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers.
That was in 2014, and to the surprise of few, that learning curve proved too steep for a seventh-round draft pick with 66 minor-league saves on his resume.
"I was kind of learning on the job, which can be really tough when you're trying to learn how to start against major league hitters," Mikolas said.
Following his failed stint in the American League, Mikolas headed to Japan, where he spent the next three years learning the art of being a starter for the Yomiuri Giants. It's a move that has paid off for both the 29-year-old and the St. Louis Cardinals, who signed Mikolas to a $15.5 million, two-year contract during the offseason.
Mikolas was 10th in the National League with a 2.70 ERA after Tuesday's games. The former Nova Southeastern University pitcher has allowed two or fewer runs in each of his last four starts highlighted by a scoreless seven-inning outing in a win over the Chicago Cubs last week.
"Guys don't seem to pick him up real well," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "They're seeing him for the first time, a lot of them, too. So, I think all that plays into his hands, but he's just making good pitches. He's just been real impressive."
What's been most impressive about Mikolas' return to the major leagues hasn't been his ability to get outs. It's been keeping runners off base, allowing only two walks in his first 40 innings with the Cardinals.
Mikolas hasn't walked a batter in each of his last three starts, a streak he will try and continue when St. Louis begins a four-game series against the San Diego Padres on Thursday.
"If I throw ball four, there's a 100 percent chance that guy's going to be on first base," Mikolas said. "If you make him put it in play, I'll take my chances with those numbers."
Mikolas, a native of Jupiter, Florida, made 236 appearances in the minors for the both the Padres and Rangers. After starting 11 games during his first season in 2009, he didn't start another game until a rain delay forced his Triple-A coaches to ask him about starting in 2014.
He did so, and six starts with Round Rock later, Mikolas was called up to Texas where he compiled a 6.44 ERA in 10 starts to end that season.
It was after that rough stretch that Mikolas made the decision to leave for Japan. And it was there he learned how to become a starting pitcher while refining his pitches, smoothing out his delivery and concentrating on location, all with the goal of returning to the major leagues.
"There was always the one guy in the back of your head that you probably want to get out of there, that's telling you `This wasn't a good idea,"' Mikolas said. "But 99 percent of me was confident in saying this was the right choice, and here I am. It's worked out well.