JUPITER, Fla. -- Carlos Martinez has pitched on the biggest of stages before. He appeared in World Series games at the age of 22 and excelled as the ace of a stacked Dominican team in the World Baseball Classic earlier this spring. He's a hard-throwing, cup-tower-building, water-splashing, gregarious 25-year-old right-hander
JUPITER, Fla. -- Carlos Martinez has pitched on the biggest of stages before. He appeared in World Series games at the age of 22 and excelled as the ace of a stacked Dominican team in the World Baseball Classic earlier this spring. He's a hard-throwing, cup-tower-building, water-splashing, gregarious 25-year-old right-hander who has shown the ability to feed off the emotion of the moment, the stage and the assignment.
Now, he's ready for the next one: Cardinals Opening Night starter.
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"That kid is not afraid," said his battery mate, Yadier Molina. "He's going to do the best he can. It's good that he has the chance to open, because he's one of the young guys here who, for many years more, is going to be making Opening Day starts. But that kid is ready. Carlos is ready."
After scribbling the initials of lost friends Oscar Taveras and Jose Fernandez into the mound dirt, Martinez will throw the first pitch of the Cardinals' season. It will come on Sunday against the Cubs, under the Busch Stadium lights, and in front of a national audience, a suite full of Cardinals Hall of Famers and a fan base yearning for more reason to believe that the Cardinals can challenge the Cubs for National League Central supremacy this season.
If there's one thing the Cardinals are confident in, it's this: Martinez won't be overwhelmed by any of it.
"It's going to be an important game because it's against the Cubs," Martinez said, speaking through a translator. "I know there's going to be a lot of energy, a lot of fans. But, again, I'm going to keep the mentality of it being just like any other game, and I'm going to go out there and do what I always do."
His start will symbolize a changing look to the Cardinals' core. Martinez solidified his place as a centerpiece in it when he agreed to a long-term deal that could keep him in St. Louis through 2023. He'll be the youngest pitcher to make an Opening Day start for the Cardinals in 28 years and likely will have four players age 26 or younger playing behind him.
"Having this new contract, having this new responsibility really helps me stay focused and really helps me mature as a player," Martinez said. "I'm going to do my best to represent the team and St. Louis."
To get to this point, Martinez has had to evolve. He arrived in the Majors riding a power fastball that registered in the triple digits. It was enough for Martinez to have success as a reliever, but it didn't set him up to pitch deep as a starter. So Martinez adapted.
His fastball usage dropped from 78 percent in 2013 to 58 percent in 2016, when he ranked fifth among National League starters with 5.4 Wins Above Replacement. The changeup and slider have become plus pitches for Martinez and have aided in his efforts to become more efficient. Martinez, in fact, induced more ground-ball contact (57.7 percent) than any NL starter except Jaime Garcia last season.
It's all part of the journey that leads to Sunday, when Martinez will have the chance to set the tone for the season ahead and assert himself as worthy of being discussed among the game's best.
"There's going to be a lot of excitement that night," manager Mike Matheny said. "Him maintaining and containing all that excitement and energy is going to be a great challenge. But it's also going to be a great reward for what he's done so far and what we see him doing in the future."
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast.