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Cards certain C-Mart's best is yet to come

Martinez knows next step is 'to never underestimate any opponent'
MLB.com @LangoschMLB

MILWAUKEE -- With their decision to deal Mike Leake to the Mariners on Wednesday, the Cardinals took their blueprint public. It's time, they decided, to go young.

All those high-ceiling arms the Cardinals have been developing will soon get their chance. But while they arrive and emerge, the Cardinals will call upon another young pitcher already here to anchor that group.

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MILWAUKEE -- With their decision to deal Mike Leake to the Mariners on Wednesday, the Cardinals took their blueprint public. It's time, they decided, to go young.

All those high-ceiling arms the Cardinals have been developing will soon get their chance. But while they arrive and emerge, the Cardinals will call upon another young pitcher already here to anchor that group.

View Full Game Coverage

Carlos Martinez, 25, began the season as the team's Opening Day starter and expected ace. He's put together a fine year, but as was evidenced again in the Cardinals' 6-5 loss to the Brewers on Wednesday, he hasn't reached his expected ceiling.

"There is another level for him," manager Mike Matheny acknowledged. "I'm excited to watch him continue to grow."

Video: STL@MIL: Matheny cites improvements of Grichuk, Pham

The Cardinals have lost more of Martinez's starts (14) than they've won (13), including the past two. Martinez made things more difficult for himself in both by committing costly throwing errors.

But there have been other stumbling blocks along the way for Martinez this season, too. He's had his share of troubles in the first inning, a frame in which he's allowed 19 runs and six homers in 27 starts. Wednesday's 1-2-3 first inning, which Martinez completed with 10 pitches, represented improvement in that area.

And then there's been the sting of the long ball. After allowing a combined 28 homers over 375 innings from 2015-16, Martinez has served up 24 in 174 innings this season. Eleven of those have come off his slider, including Jonathan Villar's two-run blast Wednesday that pushed Milwaukee's lead to three.

What's been perplexing is how otherwise effective that pitch has been for Martinez. Entering Wednesday, opponents were batting just .153 off his slider. Yet one-third of those hits left the ballpark.

"Not many hits, but the times they've gotten home runs, it just hangs," Martinez said, speaking through a translator.

That's not to say that there haven't also been signs of emerging dominance. Martinez remains among the league leaders in innings pitched, strikeouts (182), quality starts (18) and ground-ball percentage (51.8 percent).

Now it's a matter of taking those ingredients and maximizing them. As the Cardinals surround Martinez with even younger arms, they'll be looking for him to set the tone.

"I think the key for me is not to get too comfortable, to never underestimate any opponent," Martinez said, when asked what was necessary to take the next step in his career. "Just treat every start the same and really focus on that."

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.

St. Louis Cardinals, Carlos Martinez