JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- When Carlos Martinez sat down in his manager’s office Wednesday morning, it took him a minute to process what was said.
Mike Matheny told him he would be the team’s number one pitcher, the one who will start first once spring training ends.
“I didn’t believe it. I thought he was talking about another game. I thought he was talking about the exhibition game in Springfield or Memphis,” Martinez said.
The manager meant the team’s home opener, the showcase showdown of MLB’s Opening Night in which the Cardinals host the World Champion Chicago Cubs.
It’s a marquee moment for Martinez, who not only takes the stage for the most anticipated contest since Game 7 of the World Series, but takes the baton from veteran Adam Wainwright, the Opening Day starter of the past four seasons.
“I don’t want anything I haven’t earned and I don’t want to have earned anything just because I’ve been here for awhile,” Wainwright said after being informed Wednesday he would start game two. “I think he earned that the way he pitched last year and the year before that. Conversely, the way I pitched last year, I didn’t earn that. It’s well deserved.”
Martinez had arguably the best season of his career in 2016, starting 31 games and amassing 20 quality starts. He went 16-9, and made the leap to consistency.
“Every fifth day, show up and give your team the best possible chance to win you can give. It sounds easy but it’s very tough mentally over the course of the season,” Wainwright said of Martinez’s progress. “Physically, he’s obviously got enough tools to be able to go out there and pitch half speed and get people out. But mentally, if you let up for a small second in baseball in the big leagues, you’re going to give up three or four runs.”
Martinez rarely let up last season.
He posted a career-best 1.22 WHIP and struck out nearly 2.5 hitters to every one he walked. He also pitched smarter, endeavoring to coax bad contact in order to conserve pitches so he could go deeper in games.
The 24-year-old went seven or more innings 14 times, which is five more times than he did a year prior.
“Those later innings, that’s when your team is saved the next three or four days from having to use the bullpen,” Wainwright said.
The Cardinals noticed, and after the incumbent ace struggled through the worst statistical season of his career, they extended Martinez the opportunity to take the reigns in the 2017 opener.
The move represents the beginning of a transition for Cardinals, who recently signed Martinez to a five-year, $51 million deal this offseason. Wainwright, 35, is in the final two years of his contract. His struggles last season were multifaceted; a product of lost pitching grips, elusive consistency and compromised strength. He believes he will be able to reverse those trends in 2017, but for the moment, Martinez is the anchor of the staff.
“Thank God I’m now representing the team like a number one. I’ll continue,” the Dominican said. “That helps me to remain focused and try to be a leader and try to do things right and be an example for the team.”
After the announcement was made, the two pitchers talked. Wainwright, who has started every Opening Day but one under Mike Matheny, extended his congratulations.
“He told me to take advantage of it because those are things he’s taken full advantage of. And now it’s my turn,” Martinez said.
But Wainwright is not yet ready to pass the torch permanently. He expects the St. Louis pitching staff to rebound from an ugly 2016, and believes a return to form would be enough to close the 17-game gap which defined the NL Central race last season.
“It’s going to be a lot like 2015, I think. A renaissance of sorts,” Wainwright said. “I think it’s going to be the strength of our team.”
He also pictures himself as a keystone of that transformation, especially given how strong he’s felt this spring. He’s happy for Martinez, and knows the young righty is the right option this year. He also believes the race for game one will be much tighter a season from now.
“If they give me the ball on Opening Day I want them to look at me in my eyes and go, ‘This is your day. We’re banking on this being your day.’ That is what I want and that’s what I expect next year. I told Mike, ‘This is an easy decision for you. Next year is going to be tough when we both go out and win 20.’"