Seeking No. 5 starter job, Miller continues to impress

VIERA, Fla. -- Facing a Nationals lineup loaded with regulars on Friday, right-hander Shelby Miller only strengthened the case he's building in his attempt to claim the final spot in the Cardinals' season-opening rotation.

The hardest hit ball off Miller was Danny Espinosa's double to lead off the first. Miller answered, though, by striking out Bryce Harper and retiring Ryan Zimmerman on a fly ball to strand Espinosa at third. Harper's at-bat featured 11 pitches, the last of which was a 95-mph high fastball that Harper swung through.

Miller then breezed through the second. A two-out triple that Harper bounced over the head of first baseman Allen Craig drove in the only two runs Miller allowed in his three-inning appearance.

"A year ago, I was pretty much intimidated by a team like that," Miller said. "I was younger and had no big league experience. My main goal was to go out there and control the game -- just work every pitch I had. I just feel stronger and that I have more confidence out there than I did last year."

The Cardinals appear willing to let the fifth-starter competition include at least another round between Joe Kelly and Miller, each of whom has made two Grapefruit League appearances.

"The deeper and deeper we go into spring, the more you're going to be concentrated on how you do on all things," Miller said. "I know it's getting down to the wire, where they have to make a decision for who the fifth starter is so they can start logging some innings. Right now, I'm just doing what they tell me to do, enjoying it, and hopefully I get more starts down the road."

How the Cardinals will continue to get the two pitchers their innings has not been clarified by the club. There is the possibility that both will start a game next week; or the innings could come by making a long relief appearance. As manager Mike Matheny emphasized again on Friday, it's not what role the innings come in, but simply that they come.

After straining to reach his expected velocity last year because of a less-than-ideal body composition, Miller has had no trouble building up his arm strength this spring. He's more composed, too, and has shown a willingness to throw his offspeed pitches in tricky spots.

It's all, the Cardinals believe, signs of a maturity pitcher.

"We've made no question about it that these guys are competing," Matheny said. "You put some pressure on him. A good lineup puts pressure on him. He's matured. He does have a better composure that he did at this time last year. I guess that's just a testimony to the work he's put in."