Led by Flaherty-Contreras connection, Cardinals put Brewers on notice with emphatic series-opening win

The Cardinals slugged three home runs in a 10-run eighth inning as they beat the Brewers 18-1 at Busch Stadium.
St. Louis Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras walks off the field after working during the...
St. Louis Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras walks off the field after working during the second inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Monday, May 15, 2023, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)(Jeff Roberson | AP)
Published: May. 16, 2023 at 2:57 AM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - All eyes were on Jack Flaherty and Willson Contreras on Monday at Busch Stadium.

The pair was scheduled to match up as the starting battery for the first time since the Cardinals turned heads around the league with their decision to indefinitely sideline the catcher to whom they had just committed five years and $87.5 million.

Contreras’ final start behind the plate before the Cardinals unveiled their plan to step back from his catching duties came on the day that Flaherty allowed 10 earned runs to the Angels and didn’t make it out of the third inning.

It was revealed over the weekend in Boston that Flaherty had pushed for Contreras to catch him in Monday’s start as he explained that his comments following that May 4 debacle were delivered out of frustration and were intended more as a reflection of his own lack of execution than as any perceived slight to his batterymate.

Whatever the reasons at the heart of St. Louis’ handling of Contreras over the week-and-a-half that followed, it seemed fitting that, to convince a doubting baseball world the situation had been resolved, Flaherty would be the face of the operation when the franchise catcher revived his role.

After the duo had finished weaving a masterpiece in an emphatic 18-1 win on Monday night, Cardinals manager Oli Marmol reiterated that Contreras will be an everyday catcher again moving forward, stating that the team is “a lot better that way.”

Flaherty struck out 10 Milwaukee batters across seven shutout innings in a significant step forward for a St. Louis pitching rotation that has been craving this type of effort from the 27-year-old right-hander.

“That’s what was needed and we couldn’t have scripted it any better,” Marmol said of Flaherty’s performance with Contreras back behind the plate Monday. “That was as dominant as we’ve seen him this year.”

Flaherty’s outing Monday began similarly to some of the grinding affairs we’ve seen him navigate so far in 2023 as the Cardinal starter walked the leadoff man of the game on four pitches. He would go on to load the bases with the Brewers in that first inning.

The rising pitch count and potential for damage against him were familiar elements encountered by the starter who entered the day with an uncharacteristic 6.18 ERA on the year. But as he’s been able to do more than any pitcher in baseball so far this season, Flaherty induced a groundball double play to end the threat in the first.

From there, his confidence was unmistakable.

“That first inning, he ran into traffic and was able to pitch out of it,” Marmol said. “You could see just a quiet confidence after that. He was just even-keel throughout that entire game. In control.

“There was something about it that you knew, they weren’t scoring today.”

Flaherty may have gained some of that confidence from the lead that Nolan Arenado provided him in the bottom of the first. Arenado roped a laser out to left field for a three-run blast, making Monday the fourth day in a row with a home run for the resurgent Cardinals third baseman.

That swing by Arenado provided all the support Flaherty would need. Six more scoreless innings later, Flaherty had given the Cardinals arguably the most impactful start they’ve seen all year from their rotation.

This degree of effective collaboration between Flaherty and Contreras is something that the Cardinals could have only dreamed about a couple of weeks earlier as the lines of communication seemed to break down between pitcher and catcher after that putrid start on May 4.

A now-widely reported meeting involving Flaherty, Contreras, Marmol and Adam Wainwright began to soften the frigidity that may have developed as a factor leading to the emotionally-charged benching of the starting catcher. Reflecting on the benefit of the meeting⁠—to which Contreras had referred as an “ice-breaker” for growing his relationship with Flaherty⁠—Marmol emphasized that it had been “as important as anything.”

“I mean, we’re dealing with humans,” Marmol continued. “This game has a lot of emotions tied to it. Overall confidence is driven by it. So I couldn’t agree more that was an important meeting and we’re seeing the benefits of it.”

Contreras agreed that the meeting⁠—which was one of two that helped inspire the Cardinals in recent days, as the catcher shared that some encouraging words during a team meeting from Paul Goldschmidt in Chicago also provided a spark for the ball club⁠—laid the groundwork for more a more communicative environment moving forward.

“I think that was something that they needed to see out of me,” Contreras said. “They needed to see the real Willson Contreras. I’m not saying that I was trying to act differently, but now they know that I care a lot. That probably was something that they needed to see out of me, and they did. When I said that was an ice-breaker, that was it.”

For his part, Flaherty conceded to having been “distant” in his relationship with Contreras prior to the mending meeting. But the Cardinal starter had nothing but glowing praise for his batterymate Monday, sharing that Contreras did an “unbelievable” job behind the plate.

“To get back in there and call the game the way he did and to catch the way he did tonight is a testament to how he is as a player,” Flaherty said.

Asked about a hearty hug shared between Flaherty and himself in the dugout after the conclusion of the starting pitcher’s seventh scoreless inning Monday, Contreras was practically giddy in his response.

“Oh man, it feels way different,” he said with a genuine smile filled with relief as much as it was joy related to the turn for the better that his catching career had just taken in the previous few hours. “For sure, it feels so good. I’m proud of that guy, to be honest.”

Emboldened by Flaherty’s strong effort, the St. Louis offense got to work, adding to its bountiful tally as the game progressed. The Cardinals sent 13 men to the plate in an explosive 10-run eighth inning that saw Tommy Edman and Nolan Gorman hit home runs before Andrew Knizner walloped his first-career grand slam to cement an invigorating win.

With their drubbing of the Brewers, the Cardinals pulled within 6.5 games of the NL Central leaders. Though the record still shows St. Louis in last place in the division at eight games below .500 (17-25), Flaherty’s renaissance punctuated a week in which the Cardinals seemed to make considerable strides in several key areas that had evaded them.

By winning seven of their last eight games⁠—and getting Monday’s victory in such convincing fashion on the same night that the Redbirds’ franchise catcher returned to his rightful perch⁠—the Cardinals have officially put the Brewers and the rest of the NL Central on notice.