JUPITER, Fla. — Jack Flaherty said it best.
“It was a little all over the place,” was the right-hander’s accurate description of his Grapefruit League start Thursday against the visiting Astros.
Flaherty feels fine and strong physically as he continues to add distance from a frustrating 2022 season shortened by shoulder issues. He recorded seven groundball outs and three strikeouts in 80 pitches (41 strikes) through 4.1 piecemealed innings. The cutter he is working on buzzing into left-handed hitters performed well often.
“It’s something we are playing with,” Flaherty said.
Multiple four-seam fastballs hit 93 mph or faster on the Roger Dean Stadium radar display, one of which came on a strikeout heater that caught Chas McCormick looking right before catcher Willson Contreras fired to second base to nail a stealing Jake Meyers, ending the inning.
Want to bet we see a few more of those this season?
“If people want to give it a shot,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “I enjoyed watching it.”
Now the not so good ...
Starting with the leadoff single he allowed and ending with the Jose Abreu double that secured the final run of the Astros’ 3-0 win, Flaherty allowed seven hits, three of which went for extra bases, two of which belonged to Abreu. Disappointed with his fastball and curveball command, he walked two batters and hit another.
Due to the combination of a climbing pitch count that was nearing his preassigned limit, turbulence he encountered in the fourth inning (26 pitches), and the flexibility that spring training exhibitions allow, Flaherty did not finish the fourth inning. That was so he could come back out for what he hoped would be a full (and efficient) fifth frame. He didn’t finish the fifth, either, though because the reaching of his pitch limit coincided with Abreu’s double, which was hit hard but not nearly as hard as Abreu’s fourth-inning homer over the left-field wall on a Flaherty cutter that failed to cut.
Marmol and Flaherty decided to make the Grapefruit League approved maneuver to pull Flaherty and then bring him back in later because it allowed him to have more pitches to throw after another up-down, a reminder this is still the time of spring when starters are working on their arm conditioning. Connor Lunn, a right-handed 2019 11th-round pick, cleaned up for Flaherty in the fourth. It was Andre Granillo, a 14th-round pick in 2021, who entered to end the fifth. Together they stranded the four baserunners Flaherty handed them.
“I wanted to see him do exactly what he did — pitch through some stuff,” Marmol said. “Seeing him pitch through some things and not just breeze through is a good thing. Working through that is a good thing.”
I understand the desire to dig into every Flaherty spring training start like it’s going to tell us something big about the pending free agent’s pivotal season. When the team owner says you are the reason the team didn’t go add a top-shelf starter this offseason, that tends to build pressure, not scale it back. There is no mistaking how important this season is for Flaherty, the Cardinals and their future, whether that future is forged together or apart. This is about more than Flaherty just staying healthy. It’s about him proving health was the only thing stopping his rise toward becoming an ace. I get it. I do. I’m just not expecting spring training to tell us much about how such hefty topics will be settled. But the end of April sure could.
The first full month of the regular season will be a stress test for the Cardinals unlike any they have had in recent memory. They launch with home series against the Blue Jays and the Braves, a road trip to Milwaukee and an attempt to solve the always confounding Coors Field before mid-April. Another road trip after that ends at Dodger Stadium on the final day of the month. The Blues Jays had the highest on-base plus slugging percentage (.760) of any American League team last season. The only two National League teams to top them? The Dodgers (.775) and the Braves (.760). American Family Field (formerly Miller Park) and Coors Field are notorious igniters of offense.
“Fun month,” Marmol said.
Major League Baseball has attempted to embargo its teams from officially announcing opening-day starters. Smart money for the Cardinals is on Adam Wainwright, who is beginning his retirement season. But whether Flaherty goes second over Miles Mikolas, or later to split up lefties Jordan Montgomery and Steven Matz, he is going to face some heavy hitters and some tough venues out of the gate in what he hopes becomes a redemption campaign.
In spring training there are little moments that tell you something, like three-time All-Star Abreu’s swing having little trouble with Flaherty’s cutter (407-foot homer) or his hanging slider (double).
Through the Cardinals’ first nine series of the regular season, there are six opponents that due to their lineup or location (or both) can make even the best starters sweat.
Flaherty’s effectiveness then will say a whole lot more than an all-over-the-place outing in mid-March.
He could start two more games down here before the gantlet begins.
“We’re getting to that point,” Flaherty said, “where you kind of get to go out and treat it like a full game.”
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