Cards, Flaherty (7-0) edge Crew to take set

May 14th, 2021

For once, the Cardinals needed to pitch like their ace.

It’s not that he can’t, looking like a sharper pitcher in the early goings of 2021 after a lackluster and bizarre ’20 -- and it’s not that he hasn’t, owning a 2.83 ERA and a 0.944 WHIP entering Thursday. But with a MLB-leading 54 runs of support, he’s operated under a wide cloud of comfort. Though St. Louis hasn’t needed him, he’s shoved regardless.

No matter on Thursday afternoon. Flaherty led his squad to a 2-0 win over the Brewers at American Family Field, tossing six shutout innings with as many strikeouts to earn his MLB-leading seventh victory. It would be hard to blame him for looking up at the scoreboard and being thrown off by just one run scored during his time on the mound; Flaherty entered the day with the Cardinals averaging 9.43 runs per game in his starts.

That changed on Thursday because of the man opposite him. Brewers ace Corbin Burnes made MLB history as he held the Cardinals to one run over five innings, striking out nine and walking one for the first time in 58 K’s. But it took just one run for St. Louis to waltz out of Milwaukee with a series victory -- a first-inning RBI single by Nolan Arenado. It was the only run the Cards scored before the eighth inning all series.

“At the end of the day, it's two good teams going at it,” Flaherty said. “Anytime you get that, it's going to be a fun one.”

Thursday was another feather in the cap of Flaherty’s revival 2021 season. In improving to 7-0, he ...

• Became the first Cardinals pitcher to have a sub-3.00 ERA and win at least seven of his first eight games of a season since Bob Gibson did it in 1965
• Is the first Cards starter to win seven consecutive starts in 20 years (Matt Morris in 2001)
• Won his first game this season of a margin of two or fewer runs
• Continued to show the league that 2019 Flaherty is back with a vengeance

“Jack's more than capable of shutting people down and pitching in a tight ballgame,” said manager Mike Shildt. “He's had that mentality and a physical ability of doing it.”

But Thursday was about more than Flaherty. It was about positioning. It was about making a statement. And it was about riding high into a weekend rematch with the high-flying Padres, who bounced these Cardinals out of the 2020 postseason.

Facing the best of Milwaukee’s rotation -- Freddy Peralta (who struck out eight), Brandon Woodruff (who threw five no-hit innings) and Burnes (who returned from the injured list to make history) -- St. Louis left the Badger State with an extra game up on its second-place rivals -- the Cards' first non-sweep series win of the year.

“It's huge,” said outfielder Lane Thomas, who scored an insurance run in the ninth as a pinch-hitter. “It's a pretty tight race right now. It’s early still, but anytime, it's good to go there and boost your confidence going forward.”

Confidence also comes in the Cardinals’ ace pitching like one once again.

Adam Wainwright said on Thursday’s YouTube-exclusive broadcast that Flaherty is showing shades of his 2019 self, limiting his pitch arsenal as much outside of the heart of the zone as he can. In doing so -- particularly with his fastball -- Flaherty not only seemed primed to his competitors to repeat 2019, when he finished fourth in Cy Young balloting, but also to extend it.

"There were little differences. He was throwing a different fastball, his velocity was up a tick, for sure. He grabbed some 97s in the fifth,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, ejected in the third inning for arguing a foul ball that hit off Dylan Carlson’s foot. “He’s pitching more up in the strike zone. His command is really on point right now, and that’s the difference for a guy like him, because he’s not giving you a lot of pitches to hit. He’s a tough customer and he’s off to a good start."

Take out Flaherty’s aberration of 2020 -- when he was most impacted pitching-wise by the Cardinals’ shutdown -- and the righty owns a 2.70 ERA in 41 starts since the start of the 2019 season.

Limit that to the second half of 2019, and that mark falls to 1.41 in 23 starts.

But as Flaherty and the rest of the Cardinals have come to learn, you can’t just remove those starts. You also don’t have to acknowledge them.

“I don’t pitch like I need to prove anything to anybody else,” Flaherty said. “... Anybody wants to say or wants to write or whatnot -- all you're trying to do is go out there and execute and let everything else speak for itself.”