ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Nearly two months ago, Mike Matheny made a decision that seemed fairly obvious to the rest of the world, but the significant weight it carried made the decision itself significant, too. By naming Carlos Martinez the opening day starter, Matheny gave credence to a notion already determined by the statistics a year prior: there was a new ace of the St. Louis Cardinals pitching rotation.
Matheny still readily invokes the word ‘ace’ when discussing Adam Wainwright and the influence he continues to impose on the organization. On the mound, though, Martinez has harnessed his tremendous natural abilities to the extent that he has surpassed Wainwright as the Cardinals' top starter.
Some don’t consider ‘opening day starter’ to be synonymous with ‘ace.’ It’s possible that not every team has an ace. The aura of ace carries a unique connotation–is it determined by objective criteria? As Martinez had never surpassed 200 innings or dipped below the 3.00 ERA threshold in any season of his career, questions on his ace-hood lingered for some.
Hopefully those seeking answers were watching Martinez master his craft Wednesday night at Busch Stadium. Outdueling the Dodgers duo of Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ross Stripling, Martinez twirled eight innings of one-run ball in a 2-1 victory to put an emphatic stop to the Cardinals’ three-game losing streak.
“Just an impressive day, and that’s kind of what we needed,” Matheny said. “We needed someone to step up and have a big day like that.”
The Cardinals' troubling trends ran deeper than just the last three games–St. Louis had also lost five of six and ten of its last 13 games coming into Wednesday. Martinez’s outing began with the Cardinals showing a losing record for the first time since early May; the ace turned it around.
“That’s what that guy at the top does,” Matheny said. “We know that ace stuff is what Carlos has–our opening day guy. The guy that can come in and put a stop to a tough run. We needed a special performance and he answered.”
Martinez (4-4, 3.08 ERA) did what aces do, delivering the Cardinals from a rough patch, stopping the bleeding. He overcame some turbulence in the first inning and fell into sync with Yadier Molina, appearing to grow stronger as the game developed. Even near the end of his 106-pitch night, Martinez was flirting with triple digits into the eighth inning.
“You see the first at-bat of the game and you wonder if he’s going to be able to put his rhythm together,” Matheny said. “But he made a real quick adjustment and timed up. Just sailed. Just a great mix of everything, he had good movement, good off-speed pitches, everything. It was impressive.”
With the expectations of an ace comes performing as the stopper. Martinez takes pride in his role, and took to heart the importance of pulling his team out of its losing streak.
“It’s been a tough stretch against Los Angeles–we lost the last two–so I was really focused going into this game, because I wanted to win it,” Martinez said through his translator. “Obviously both teams wanted to win it, but I was very focused on getting this one for the team.”
Martinez moved through his start far from certain he would accomplish his goal, as the offense left plenty to be desired yet again. It wasn’t until Martinez had already exited the game that his teammate Dexter Fowler provided the one swing of the bat that could propel him his fourth win of the year–and the Cardinals back to a .500 record. After Fowler's blast nearly cleared the Cardinal bullpen, Martinez could be found leaping into the air from the dugout.
“That’s how you do it,” Martinez said through his translator of Fowler’s home run. “It’s a team effort and it was great. I know everyone was happy with it. When I was looking up, the game was tied. He was able to untie it with a home run, and that’s exactly what I wanted.”
The pitcher gliding to his seventh quality start in a row Wednesday is the one Martinez has been since a few blips back in April. Through two months of the season, Martinez is averaging 6.64 innings per start, a notable improvement from 6.30 innings/starts last year, and from 6.02 innings/start in 2015.
Progression: Martinez has evolved as a pitcher each season since he’s been in the big leagues, and it feels as though he is building toward a crescendo in 2017.
At this point, anyone still unsure about his status as the Cardinals ace has clearly not been watching Carlos Martinez deal his cards.