Opening Day carries as much weight in St. Louis as it does anywhere, and this year, it would be played under the lights of Busch Stadium against the defending world champion Cubs. Much deliberation went into the decision of Adam Wainwright vs. Carlos Martinez for the first start of the season. Would Mike Matheny reward the veteran or use this moment as an opportunity for an emerging ace to showcase his worthiness of the moniker?
Carlos Martinez wanted the ball.
Matheny settled on the budding star over the flickering one–even Wainwright, who feels he has plenty left in the tank for a bounce back season, understood the choice to pass the torch to Martinez.
The start on Sunday Night Baseball would be the first opening day nod of Martinez’s promising career. With his 16-9 campaign in 2016, Martinez achieved sustained success over multiple seasons–taking the ball Sunday would be a chance to rise to a new level.
The only question that remained: What would Martinez do with it?
“That’s a big order when you’re given that first day–for the first time, too,” Matheny said after Martinez stymied the Cubs in front of a national audience. “He’s a kid that doesn’t scare. It’s just whether or not he can keep everything into a good rhythm like he had today. The stuff was electric as usual. He harnessed it well. What made him so good today is that he used all three pitches and you couldn’t really sit on anything.”
Martinez didn’t get the win after a blown save by Seung-Hwan Oh, but that doesn’t diminish the masterful nature of his performance. He carved up the Cubs lineup for 10 strikeouts, and as Matheny mentioned, flashed variety in his arsenal.
On a couple strikeouts in the early innings, Martinez touched 100mph on the stadium gun–not a bad put away pitch. Even with his robust strikeout tally, Martinez traversed 7 and 1/3 innings needing only 105 pitches, showing the type of efficiency expected out of a true ace of staff.
After the game, Martinez conceded that this was more to him than just another start.
“It might have been a little bit of adrenaline,” Martinez said through a translator. “I’ve never felt those emotions, I’ve never had this opportunity, but I think it actually worked in my favor because I’ve never been so focused, as well.”
Ace is a term that carries different connotations for different people, but if Martinez uses his performance in the opening game as a launch point for his season, it’ll be an injustice to refer to him as anything else. The key for Martinez to cement himself in that role–and put his name alongside the Kershaws and Bumgarners–is consistency.
The greats, the Cy Young candidates, the aces of major league contenders–they eclipse 200 innings per season regularly. They stop losing streaks and build winning streaks. Martinez wants to become that pitcher; his teammates believe he can.
“Any time you get Carlos going out there and throwing his game, what he’s capable of, it’s impressive,” Randal Grichuk said. “He can cut it, sink it, slide it–he can do everything. He makes a lot of good hitters look bad, and that’s tough to do in this game. It’s definitely fun to play behind him and watching when he’s on.”
Sunday, he was on. If Martinez doesn’t turn it off, this past offseason will have been the last in which one might debate his status as the Cardinals ace.