PORT ST. LUCIE, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- It’s time for Carlos Martinez to take the next step. The message has come early and often out of Cardinals camp that the gifted righty, now 26 and the team’s clear top starter, needs to elevate himself- through consistency, discipline, better mentality, choose your term- to the next level.
“He shouldn’t be content with being the ace of the St. Louis Cardinals,” manager Mike Matheny said this offseason. “He should be content with being talked about at the end of the year as the best pitcher in the league.”
The Cardinals want Martinez to become consistently good to go along with his occasional greatness; to be unhittable on his best days and reliable on his worst. He has the physical gifts to do it.
This spring, the term repeated most often has been “focus,” and it popped up again after Martinez’s rocky first spring start.
“The first thing is I need to be focused on the first inning. That’s what I want to work on during spring training,” he said Saturday. “The second thing is be focused during the game. Not care about what happened elsewhere in the game. Just be focused with a good mentality and do better and better.”
The matchup against the Mets was only an exhibition game- and the first one Martinez has pitched in- but if the point of focus was the first inning, it wasn’t the start he was hoping for.
From the first hitter he looked jumpy, working too fast for his mechanics. He surrendered a single to start and ended up issuing two more walks, one of which forced in a run.
“It was my first game and my command was no good today,” he said. “Sometimes I would be too fast. I need to work on that because sometimes I’m going too fast and balls are around here (pointing to the air around his shoulders to indicate a pitch up in the zone). My shoulder opens early.”
Martinez threw 18 of the 31 pitches in the first inning for balls, and opened the second frame with a leadoff walk. He was eventually pulled after a strikeout looking.
Even with the trouble, he allowed just one run and managed to avoid calamity.
However, the first three outs have been the toughest for Martinez of late. Looking at his walk totals by inning, the first frame has been the worst for two seasons running. His strikeout to walk ratio, 2.74 for his career, was below 2.0 in the opening inning in both 2016 and 2017. Last season, he gave up more homers and runs over the first three outs than any other stretch.
“I’m going to be working on my first inning. Throwing my first pitch for strikes. That’s very important,” Martinez said.
Despite the wobbly debut, Matheny was happy his ace pitched out of trouble and was quick to praise how well Martinez has looked early in camp. If this had been a longer outing, the manager said, Martinez may well have made the first inning a distant memory by the time he was pulled.
“We’ve seen him do that and then he gets locked in. All of a sudden he’s standing out there six innings later,” Matheny said.
However, he also admitted Martinez adds a great deal of work for himself when he starts off rocky. If he’s to become the pitcher the Cardinals need him to be, the one who annually challenges for Cy Youngs and is reliably steady over 30-plus starts, he needs to stop digging himself holes right out of the gate.
“We talk about focus and getting himself into that consistent mode, it starts in the first. You see the guys that have been consistently at the top of the game, they come out with their best stuff dialed in from the first pitch. It’s not finding it and toying around a little bit until you get it. They come ready,” Matheny said.