ATLANTA -- A new setting did the Cardinals’ offense wonders on Tuesday, as they opened a six-game road trip by teeing off on Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz at SunTrust Park. St. Louis tallied the first 11 runs of the night and cruised to a 14-3 victory that placated some concerns
ATLANTA -- A new setting did the Cardinals’ offense wonders on Tuesday, as they opened a six-game road trip by teeing off on Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz at SunTrust Park. St. Louis tallied the first 11 runs of the night and cruised to a 14-3 victory that placated some concerns still hanging over a club that had won just twice in its last 11 games.
This one, however, was never in doubt. While the Cards built an early lead behind a barrage of home runs, starter Jack Flaherty carried a no-hitter into the fifth. Flaherty’s six-inning start earned him his first career win over Atlanta.
“We just never let up,” Flaherty said after the team matched its single-game season-high with four homers. “Everybody did their part.”
• Box score
But what finished as a rout also reinforced a pair of continuing themes -- one the Cards hope to keep riding, the other they seek a way to stop. Here’s a look at both, as well as a check on Yadier Molina’s milestone counter:
Offensive outfield paying dividends
Though Harrison Bader has shaken the neck stiffness that precluded him from playing Sunday, manager Mike Shildt kept him on the bench to stick with his offense-first outfield alignment. The payoff was almost immediate.
Marcell Ozuna blasted a three-run homer in the opening inning. Jose Martinez padded the lead with an RBI single in the third, and Dexter Fowler homered while reaching base four times. The collective results continue to give Shildt no reason to tweak his lineup and leave Bader, whose only misstep was ending up on the injured list for 10 days, with little opportunity to snatch back an everyday spot.
“Harrison understands that he’s going to get his opportunities; just be ready when they come,” said Shildt, who has started Bader once in the team’s past 10 games. “Those guys are good offensive players. It’s the offense we’re going with now.”
That means that for now, Bader’s opportunities will come as they did on Tuesday -- as a pinch-hitter and a late-game defensive replacement.
The reason the Cardinals are content with sacrificing defensive coverage is because they boast one of the most productive offensive outfield units in the league. Entering the night, St. Louis outfielders ranked second in the National League in on-base percentage (.365), fifth in batting average (.275) and fifth in OPS (.816).
Ozuna, with three RBIs on Tuesday, became the first Cardinals player since Albert Pujols (2009) to drive in 37 or more runs in the team’s first 42 games.
“We’ve been pretty good,” Ozuna said, grinning.
Flaherty’s snowballing struggles
The final result was fine -- a quality start (the team’s fourth in a row) and a six-inning start to spare the bullpen a heavy load. But how Flaherty got there remains a bit of a bother to the right-hander.
His pitch counts and ERA have been inflated by the handful of big innings posted against him. That was the case again Tuesday when Flaherty, after throwing 59 pitches over four no-hit innings, labored through a 34-pitch sixth during which the Braves scored three times.
Of the 24 runs he’s allowed this year, 21 have come in six distinct innings.
“The only thing that we’ve really seen that’s been a bugaboo for Jack is the bigger innings,” Shildt said. “That’s been his Achilles heel. It’s hard to figure out [why].”
To be fair, Tuesday’s complicated frame was hardly all on Flaherty. The first hit he allowed on the night was a broken-bat roller that thwarted a shift on the left-handed-hitting Brian McCann. That was followed by a bloop single to right field and a hit off the glove of Matt Carpenter.
But Flaherty wasn’t without fault. He opened the inning with a walk -- one of five he issued on the night -- and forced a run in with another. The inability to pitch out of trouble was reminiscent of his previous start, one during which Flaherty allowed four runs in an inning that also opened with a free pass and was extended by an error.
“I’m good up to a point, and then it’s a long inning,” Flaherty said. “But you can’t ever think, 'Here we go again.' It’s just bear down, keep making pitches. Take that fifth inning and the fifth inning the last time out, see what happened, see where it was, but really build off the first four [innings] and the sixth of this one and the first four of the last one.”
More milestones for Molina
Molina’s climb up various franchise lists continued Tuesday.
His first-inning double -- the 367th double of his career -- moved the veteran catcher into a fifth-place tie with Rogers Hornsby on the Cardinals’ all-time list.
“It’s a great honor when you reach those milestones,” Molina said afterward. “I’m going to enjoy it for now, but [Wednesday], hopefully, I can pass him.”
Once he passes Hornsby, Molina can next set his sights on Joe Medwick, who tallied 377 doubles with the franchise.
Also on Tuesday, Molina became the 13th player in Cardinals history to hit 150 homers. His three-run blast punctuated the team’s six-run frame and gave him 30 RBIs on the season. The only Cardinals catcher with more through 42 games was Ted Simmons, who drove in 31 in 1975.
“You’re talking about a guy who has been in the league since 2004, has been to four World Series, won two, [has] nine Gold Gloves and has cemented himself as one of the best players in the game,” Shildt said. “[He] has made, rightfully, a good amount of money, and there is no satisfaction in anything he does. He just wants more.”
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.