What the Cardinals wanted to see Sunday from Jack Flaherty was the final, assertive stride of his return to the rotation, the one that set up his pitch count, his stamina, his mechanics and the crispness of his results to pitch without restrictions later this week.
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said Sunday morning that his right-hander would know “really early” how he felt.
And Flaherty did. Too early.
After two choppy but scoreless innings, an error and 49 pitches, Flaherty alerted the Cardinals that he was experiencing a “dead” arm and was immediately removed from the game.
The right-hander was scheduled for examinations by team doctors to determine possible causes of the sensation and lack of zip on his pitches just three starts and eight innings into his return to the majors from a shoulder injury. The Cardinals, already mulling pitching moves late Sunday, will decide Monday if Flaherty returns to the 15-day injured list. An immediate need for fresh arms makes that likely, even necessary, before they have a complete picture on the reason for Flaherty’s discomfort.
“Depending on what we think about Jack, the answer would be yes,” Marmol said. “He came in after that second inning and nothing was hurting. (But he) had a dead arm. Nothing was coming out the way he wanted it to. A little stiff. We weren’t going to risk it. Take him out.”
Flaherty allowed a double, committed an errant throw to second base and walked a batter to load the bases in the second inning. He snapped a curve past Cubs leadoff hitter Christopher Morel to regain control of the inning, but signs of concern surfaced. His first fastball of the inning left his hand at 86.5 mph, eye-catchingly off his 94 mph average a year ago.
All his pitches had a slower average speed than in previous starts this year. And he’s seen an overall dip in velocity on most of his pitches compared with 2021, but the sample size is small. The team acknowledged he’s building strength on the job. A “dead arm” sensation is not unusual for a pitcher several weeks into spring training.
Flaherty, who walked two and struck out two in his two innings, was not available for comment after Sunday’s game.
Another stretch without Flaherty would add to an ongoing innings challenge for the Cardinals. Steven Matz (shoulder) will make his first rehab start Tuesday, and he’s likely at least three starts away from a return. Rookie Matthew Liberatore pitched Saturday for Class AAA Memphis and would be available for Flaherty’s next scheduled turn. Jake Woodford and Packy Naughton pitched in relief as the Cardinals scrambled to cover leftover innings Sunday in an extra-innings loss to the Cubs, and they could be used to cover the next open start.
Flaherty’s two innings meant for the fourth time in six games, the Cardinals’ starter failed to complete five innings. In past their 17 games, the Cardinals have thrown only five quality starts, three by Miles Mikolas. The wear on the bullpen is clear.
The immediate future for the Cardinals’ aspiring ace is not.
Flaherty missed all of spring training because of bursitis in his right shoulder — an enraged inflammation that, he speculated, came from the slow erosion of his mechanics over the past two seasons. Speeding toward an All-Star Game appearance and possible start a year ago, Flaherty strained his oblique, and when he returned late in the season he felt that his mechanics had gone awry, putting new stress on his shoulder.
He felt strong enough, healthy enough after two rehab appearances in the minors to lobby for a return to the majors where he would continue building his stamina, as other pitchers have this season. The Cardinals had scripted one more start from him at Class AAA before the majors, but Flaherty made his case for increased intensity. Marmol said if he was going to expect his players to trust him, he had to recognize the times that he had to show trust in them, too.
Flaherty got the start. Positive results have not followed.
In his second start this season, in Milwaukee, Flaherty had difficulty finding the rhythm of his mechanics. He walked five batters. At times, he was drifting off the mound or pulling himself to the left with the swing of his arm. He said after a brief view of the video from the game that he “looked all out of sorts.”
“For him, he’ll know really early on whether his body is timed up and if he’s feeling good,” Marmol said Sunday morning, before first pitch. “Everything else is in a really good spot. So, injury-wise, all of that is a good spot. It’s a matter of him mechanically being timed up and synced up and feeling confident in what he’s doing.”
The Cardinals opted to have Flaherty build on his previous pitch count — 71 against the Brewers — and not repeat it. The stressful nature of his three innings in Milwaukee gave the team “more reason to build” his total because “he wasn’t just cruising,” Marmol said.
The goal was around 85 pitches so that in his next start, planned for this coming weekend in Philadelphia, he would be judged on how the pitches looked, not how many pitches he’d thrown.
That won’t be possible now.
Regardless of the results of the reviews by doctors, Flaherty’s schedule took a step back to 50 pitches. Even if he doesn’t miss significant time, he’ll have to restart from where he was — and do so while also establishing the mechanics he worked to regain. The level he does that will be part of the Cardinals’ decision.
“We want him to be healthy, (and) thought he was coming back,” first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. “We’ll have to play with whoever is healthy.”
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