St. Louis seems to be clicking at the right time, winning eight of its last 10 games and going 2-0-1 across its last three series. This success comes as the Cardinals welcome the Mets for what’s anticipated to be a high-flying, big-name, litmus-test-type four-game set starting on Monday, with Jacob deGrom and the top of the New York rotation returning to St. Louis for the first time since April 2019.
More than the wins, though, are some of the signs the Cardinals are receiving from their roster over the past week-plus. The outfield, rather anemic offensively at the outset of the year, was a boon of production in Pittsburgh. Martínez’s eight shutout frames continued a strong trend for him and added to a string of starters pitching at least five innings in 15 consecutive games. Their young catcher, Andrew Knizner, has also filled in admirably for a future Hall of Famer on the shelf.
All told, the Cardinals are in a stretch of 17 consecutive games without a day off, continuing with the next seven games at Busch Stadium.
“They want to play,” said manager Mike Shildt. “It’s a group that wants to play.”
Tsunami waves growing
After his last start -- in which he allowed two runs (one earned) in 7 1/3 innings -- Martínez proclaimed that “the ‘Tsunami’ is coming again.” It took him one additional outing to not only back that up, but extend the declaration a swell further.
Martínez provided an encore to his last outing with eight shutout frames against the Pirates, doing so with a cutter he’s become enamored with thanks to masterminds like current and former teammates Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn, respectively. The 33 he threw on Sunday were his most he’s thrown in a game in his career.
“I love all my pitches,” Martínez laughed, as if he were choosing among his favorite children, “but right now, my cutter is working.”
Entering the year stellar with the strikeout, Martínez has changed course in his career voyage, pitching to contact through his current revival in 2021. He struck out just three on Sunday with a 14.4 percent strikeout rate entering the day, which is the lowest mark of his career.
However he's done it, Martínez owns a 0.84 ERA over his last three starts.
“I feel strong. Right now, I got the command, I got everything,” Martínez said. “I believe in myself, I trust myself. I believe in the defense, on the offense. Everything is good right now.”
Bader going about it all right
One home-run swing will likely not serve as the be-all and end-all for Bader’s bat, which the club wants to see more results from in 2021. But in just his third game back from a right forearm injury that sidelined him for all of April, there was plenty to be happy about with his home-run stroke -- more than just providing the game-winner.
Bader connected on a slider from Pirates right-hander Wil Crowe in the second inning, smashing it 106.4 mph and a Statcast-projected 425 feet to left field. Impressive in its own right, it was only his sixth career home run off of a breaking pitch from a righty. The Cardinals would love to see his career splits even out, and Sunday was just one positive sign along the way.
“Encouraging, for sure,” Shildt said. “ … It's a good sign he’s staying on the baseball and not trying to do too much, and he's in the zone and we want swinging in the zone to take advantage of that, because we got a big strong kid who hits the ball hard.”
“I've been chomping at the bit to go out there and do it,” Bader said.
Kiz putting ’em down well
Not to be lost in the Cardinals’ pitching prowess is who is catching the baseballs they hurl.
Since replacing Yadier Molina (right foot tendon strain) following the veteran’s initial exit on April 23, Knizner has caught two shutouts (including Sunday). Opponents are averaging 2.13 runs per game in his eight starts, never surmounting the five-run mark.
What’s more, over 85 percent of Martínez’s 913 career innings have been thrown to Molina. All of a sudden, he’s pitching the best he has in years to Knizner.
“He's done his homework, he’s got a good clarity of playing, worked well,” Shildt said pregame. “And also [works] with the guys prior to the game and [understands] what he wants to do with the starter. Then the game starts, and if adjustments need to be made, he's made them.
“Just going out and playing,” Shildt said. “Playing his game.”