ST. LOUIS -- There will come a time next month -- perhaps as soon as next week -- when the Cardinals will have to determine how to handle their surplus of starting pitchers. They've already shifted some to the 'pen, and the impending returns of Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright may lead to more reshuffling of roles.
Rookie Jack Flaherty, however, will remain just as he is -- an unflappable presence in the rotation. Supported by two-run homers from Jose Martinez and Tyler O'Neill on Tuesday, Flaherty closed out a sensational month with a display of dominance and efficiency to help the Cardinals to a 5-2 victory over the Pirates.
The win improved the Cardinals to 26-12 under manager Mike Shildt, who had the interim tag removed from his title before the club opened a six-game homestand. It also helped the club open up a 1 1/2-game lead over the Brewers in the National League Wild Card race.
"We expect to win. We assume we are going to win, and we do all the little things right so it leads to Ws," said O'Neill, who has helped that cause with four homers in the club's last five games.
No team has been hotter this month than the Cardinals, now 15 games over .500 in August. And while their offensive resurgence, bullpen makeover and defensive renaissance have absorbed much of the credit, the rotation continues to be the unwavering anchor.
And in a rotation that has the Majors' fifth-best ERA (2.79) this month, Flaherty has still stood out.
"I think he's demonstrated being able to be that guy who goes out [and sets the tone]," Shildt said. "He wants that opportunity, and he seeks it and he wants more of it. It's a tremendous trait. Jack has a lot of different skill sets, and his desire is definitely one of them."
He retired the first 12 batters he faced on Tuesday en route to completing his fifth consecutive start with four or fewer hits allowed. Over seven innings, Flaherty faced two over the minimum and threw just 24 balls.
"Preparation and doing it for these guys every time out and giving it everything I have and laying it all out there," Flaherty said. "Every inning, every at-bat and every pitch matters. And everybody in here knows it. There's no time right now to take anything off, there's no time to take the foot off the gas, so we're just giving it our all right now."
Flaherty pitched the Cardinals to wins in each of his five August starts while posting some eye-popping numbers. Over 32 innings, the 22-year-old allowed 14 hits, struck out 35 and had a 1.13 ERA.
"He has the chance to be the next Adam Wainwright around here," Jedd Gyorko said. "I personally feel like that. He's got that good of stuff."
He may be pitching in the same rotation with Wainwright soon, as the Cards find themselves creeping closer toward having to make some personnel decisions. John Gant or Austin Gomber would be more susceptible to losing a starting job should the club decide to reinsert both Wainwright and Wacha into their rotation in September. When those two veteran right-handers return and in what roles remains an ongoing discussion.
Where Flaherty fits best does not.
"We have like nine starting pitchers in our rotation and bullpen, and how that all plays out over the next five weeks will depend on who's healthy, who's pitching well, matchups, all that stuff," general manager Michael Girsch said. "How we use them, how we put it all together is a little bit still up in the air. But the good thing is that all of them understand the situation."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The Cardinals chased Pirates starter Ivan Nova after 3 2/3 innings thanks to punches of power from Martinez and O'Neill. Martinez tagged Nova for a first-inning blast that gave Martinez his team-leading 17th multi-RBI game this year. Three innings later, O'Neill crushed a 436-foot home run -- the third-longest at Busch Stadium by the home team this season. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle pulled Nova later in the inning after the Cardinals loaded the bases.
The Cardinals' 20 wins this month represent the most they've had in August since the club finished 20-6 in 2009.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Though he made the play look relatively routine, O'Neill added another four-star catch to his season resume to help Flaherty get through a 1-2-3 third inning. O'Neill reached an elite sprint speed of 30.1 feet per second while covering 88 feet in 4.8 seconds to track down a fly ball off the bat of Adeiny Hechavarria. The ball had a 45 percent catch probability. It was O'Neill's third four- or five-star catch of the year.
HE SAID IT
"Overall, players play the game, and they're playing the game well. They're catching the ball better. They're hitting the ball out of the ballpark. They're hitting doubles. They're scoring runs. And they're pitching. They've been as hot as any team in baseball for some time now." -- Hurdle, on the Cardinals' second-half turnaround
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Gyorko had what would have been his 12th home run of the season erased by a crew chief review in the eighth inning. Replay showed that the ball did not clear the wall, but rather hit off the top of it. Gyorko was credited with a ground-rule double, and Paul DeJong, who had been on first, was sent back to third. Additionally, Gyorko sustained a left groin injury running out of the batter's box on the play.
The Cardinals will go for their 10th consecutive series win on Wednesday when they host the Pirates in a 7:15 p.m. CT game at Busch Stadium. Miles Mikolas (13-3, 2.94 ERA), who draws the start against Trevor Williams (10-9, 3.44), is 7-1 with a 3.05 ERA in 13 starts against NL Central opponents this year. He is coming off his worst start of the season after allowing 12 hits and five runs (four earned) in 4 2/3 innings at Coors Field on Friday.