You never like to see a guy get hurt, especially a beloved veteran like Adam Wainwright. For all the memorable moments and dominant seasons Waino has delivered as a Cardinal, his numbers just haven’t been the same since a freak Achilles injury in 2015.
Now he’s on the DL for the third time this season, and this time, it’s the 60-day variety. The sand in the hourglass of his Cardinal career is thinning. But the game keeps moving forward.
That’s where Jack Flaherty comes in. Though he’s been carving up Pacific Coast League hitters all season, opportunities to show his stuff in the big leagues have been rare and strictly on a cameo basis.
Wainwright's difficulty becomes Flaherty's opportunity as his window to convince the Cardinals he has nothing left to prove in Memphis widens a bit. For the first time this season, Flaherty didn’t head back to AAA after making a start for the big club. After 5.2 innings of one-run ball against the Twins Tuesday, he was permitted to make another start Sunday against the Phillies—almost like he’s an actual member of the starting rotation.
With what he did Sunday, he’d be more than deserving of the distinction. Flaherty turned in a 120-pitch masterpiece at Busch Stadium, striking out a career-high 13 batters. Across 7.2 dominant innings, he allowed only two hits. A Rhys Hoskins solo home run was all Philadelphia could muster off the 22-year-old right-hander, as the Cardinals beat the Phillies 5-1.
“What Jack pulled off was one of the best starts we’ve seen in a long time,” Mike Matheny said. “That was pretty amazing. The kind of pitches he made all day long, it was really impressive to watch a young player do that. Shows us the potential of what we have.”
Flaherty’s work had inspired such confidence that even after he had blown by the 100-pitch threshold in completing the seventh inning, Matheny let him bat for himself to lead off the bottom half.
And because 11 strikeouts aren’t nearly as cool as 13, Flaherty punched out a couple more batters in the eighth before departing to the applause of his appreciative fan base.
“We had a number, and the number was 120 that we didn’t want to exceed,” Matheny said. “If it looked good until that point, we added on a little bit to give us a little more room knowing we were shallow in the ‘pen. We pushed him, and he responded.”
Despite already having thrown 106 pitches, there was no doubt in his mind he wanted to take his at-bat in the seventh; he wanted to stay in the game. And he didn’t even need to verbalize that desire for his manager to recognize it.
“I wanted to see the look in his eyes and ask him,” Matheny said. “He gave me some dirty look, and I thought that was about perfect.
“It's hard for a young player, but Jack, he’s got a maturity on the mound that’s beyond his experience. Every once in a while you've got to give a guy a chance. We've had it a few times where you think a guy might be all right and you can tell, like, 'you know what, it took everything I had to get through that last one.' That's not where he was."
In addition to his maturity, Flaherty put on display the flat out overwhelming stuff he possesses at his best. He had everything working, and credited his ability to establish the sinker early in the afternoon for being the gateway to effectiveness for his slider as the day progressed.
“We were able to execute that early in the game,” Flaherty said. “We kind of ran it into righties early and that really opened up the slider late. When you’re able to make guys respect that it opens up the other side of the plate. It really opens up that slider, because they have to respect pitching inside."
With Sunday's effort, Flaherty trimmed his season ERA to 2.31 in 23.1 innings. Beyond the 13 Ks, Flaherty also added his first major league hit and win to the ledger Sunday. A calm and collected guy, his demeanor post-game didn’t necessarily convey the magnitude of what he had just accomplished.
Speaking consistently of his focus remaining on simply contributing in the here and now, to helping the Cardinals however he can, Flaherty didn’t seem at all concerned with what his near future could hold.
What happens when Alex Reyes—who preceded Flaherty with a baker’s dozen punch outs in a rehab start Saturday night—rejoins the St. Louis roster when he’s eligible May 28th? What becomes of Flaherty’s role if Adam Wainwright makes another comeback later in the season? How many cooks will fit in this kitchen?
None of that seems to garner much attention from Flaherty. Despite a less than certain path forward for the time being, he knows he belongs at this level. It’s games like Sunday’s that can ensure the rest of us reach the same conclusion.
“It’s never something that’s really been a question,” Flaherty said. “It’s just a matter of proving it to everybody else.”