JUPITER, Fla. — A baseball game was going on Sunday afternoon and their teammates were doing baseball things in it when Adam Wainwright, already two starts into his spring training, leaned over in the dugout to ask Jack Flaherty a question.
“Have you played baseball yet this spring?” the vet grinned.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s been a while,’” Flaherty recalled.
After one appearance on the back field and two postponements of his first start, Flaherty had a better answer for Wainwright on Monday afternoon after his first Grapefruit League start of spring training. He played baseball — and it sure went well.
Against a lineup dotted with defending World Series champions, Flaherty’ pitched three solid innings, struck out five and caught two batters looking at strike-three fastballs. The one hit and one run he allowed came on the same swing — a homer in the second inning — and he retired the next six Astros he faced. His final pitch was his swiftest one, at 95.2 mph, and it barnstormed past three-time batting champ Jose Altuve’s swing for a strikeout. Flaherty walked off the mound the way he stood on it: with comfort his teammates read as confidence.
That was his goal.
“It’s being myself,” the right-hander told the Post-Dispatch after his start. “Go out and like they say, ‘Jack be Jack.’ That’s it. Go out today and I have this chance to set a tone and remind everyone. Got a chance to set a tone and it felt good to be able to do that. It was kind of like, yeah, I’m good.”
The outing Monday at Roger Dean Stadium launched Flaherty into the standard schedule for a starter after his spring began with minor wrinkles compared to recent seasons — a scrambled schedule, a delayed bullpen.
Flaherty made his first “start” of spring training on the back fields where the Cardinals could control the situations he faced, give him four or five outs an inning if they wish, and also give him a chance to adjust to the pitch clock if necessary. Because of soreness in his groin and legs he pushed back his bullpen session, and that rescheduled his start. When that day arrived, he had flu-like symptoms and possibly dehydration that led to muscles and the decision to wait another day.
There was no need to “push it for the sake of pushing it,” manager Oliver Marmol said, so he made the decision to push Flaherty’s start back.
On Monday, it arrived — the baseball Wainwright asked about.
Flaherty provided the first three innings and fellow starter Steven Matz followed with three scoreless innings in his first start of spring. Matz and Flaherty combined to strike out nine batters and allow only one hit in a 7-1 win against the Astros.
“That’s what we bet on, right?” Marmol said. “When we sit down in the offseason and talk about what we need and not adding an arm — it’s because we were really counting on those two to look like that. If they do that, we’re in pretty good shape.”
Since a breakout season in 2019 positioned him as a Cy Young Award favorite for 2020, Flaherty has been limited for three consecutive seasons by schedule or injury. He’s pitched less than 80 innings in each season, and he was limited to nine appearances in both 2020 and 2022. Those bookended a stretch in which he had an oblique strain that obliterated his bid, at 8-1 with a 2.90 ERA, to start the 2021 All-Star Game — and then shoulder soreness put him on the injured list to start last season.
He threw only 36 innings in the majors and finished the year in relief. Asked Monday morning if the past few seasons and other candidates with similar workloads meant Flaherty entered this spring “competing” for a spot in the rotation or “preparing” for one, Marmol was succinct.
“He’s preparing to be in the rotation,” Marmol said. “You should look at him no differently than you would look at any other really, really good starter. He’s healthy. He feels strong. And, yeah, he’s going to toe the rubber and throw three innings and I would evaluate him no differently than I look at Miles (Mikolas) or anybody else. … We are counting on him to be a dude.”
More than words
All of the reports the Cardinals received from Flaherty through the winter were encouraging as he went through the normal throwing program, which itself was news because of that adjective: normal. What Marmol saw of Flaherty’s offseason were words, sentences, and descriptions, but just words.
What he saw this spring was more than words.
“There’s this balance of this lightness to him but still a very competitive nature, and that’s when you know he’s confident,” Marmol said. “When you’re stuck with a couple of injuries, the way he’s been, and you don’t feel like you’re at your best, it’s hard to have the presence and confidence that you normally would carry yourself with. When he showed up, you could tell it’s there.”
It arrived for the second batter Monday. Flaherty walked leadoff hitter Altuve on five pitches, falling behind 3-0 before he landed the first strike. Against World Series MVP Jeremy Pena, Flaherty landed a slider — and off he went.
Flaherty got a double-play grounder from Pena to reclaim the inning.
A leadoff homer on a misplaced slider started the second inning before Flaherty exploited the threat of that same slider to freeze a couple of Astros for called a strike three. The last one came on the fastball that came from the same release as the slider but was past the hitter before he had the chance to realize it wasn’t the slider at all. Flaherty had as many swings and misses at his fastball (two) as he had balls in play on it (two).
Greased by six walks in the second inning, the Cardinals scored six runs to give Flaherty a 6-1 lead. He retired the side in order with two strikeouts to complete his outing after 47 pitches.
“Hate walking guys, hate walking the leadoff hitter, and you hate walking the first batter of the game even more,” Flaherty said. “To get the groundball from Pena and get the next guy to strike out … it reset everything. I felt more in sync. Like everything was there.
“If your team goes out and scores six runs, you want to make it quick,” he continued. “You want to put up a shutdown inning. Those are the things that you emphasize as the season goes on. Shutdown innings are important. Getting ahead and shutdown innings. That’s when you start to remember.”
‘A different feel’
Flaherty will remain on a five-day schedule, sandwiched between lefties Jordan Montgomery and Matz during the next turn of the rotation.
The rhythm will be familiar. The surroundings won’t be.
For the first time since he came to major-league camp, Flaherty won’t look over to see Wainwright there with him. Wainwright and Mikolas left camp after an appearance Monday morning to join Team USA in Arizona for the World Baseball Classic. Flaherty could not recall a time in the spring training clubhouse when Wainwright wasn’t there, and now for the next week or more, Flaherty is the senior member of the rotation.
“It will be a different feel,” he said. “I’ll probably have more eyes on me of what to do and kind of leading a bunch. It will be good. A lot of guys will get a lot of shots in here.”
And when he look to him, he’s confident what they’ll see.
He’s played his baseball this spring.
More to come.
“I was focused on getting me right,” Flaherty said. “I’m worried about what I have to get done to be ready and in the place I want to be.”
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