Flaherty, Yadi clutch as Cards hold 2nd place

September 21st, 2020

woke up Sunday morning with a better left-hand grip than he had Saturday night, and that was all the confirmation he needed to tell Cardinals manager Mike Shildt he was going to play.

Of course, he wasn’t even thinking about his grip on the bat when he yanked a two-run homer over the left-field wall to give the Cardinals a 2-1 win over the Pirates in Sunday’s series finale at PNC Park.

“As soon as you decide to play, you forget about everything,” Molina said. “You go out there and try to do your job.”

No one was surprised to see Molina in the lineup Sunday, despite his left wrist taking a beating over the past week -- most recently being hit by a pitch in the area on Saturday. The Cardinals are in a playoff push, and Molina is their leader. St. Louis took four of five in Pittsburgh and stayed alone in second place in the National League Central, putting the team one game ahead of the Reds and Brewers with a week to play in the regular season.

“We’re fighting for a spot in the playoffs,” Molina said. “My teammates count on me. I’m healthy enough to play, and I’m going to be there, because they need me and I need them. Right now, we’re fighting for a spot, and we’ve got to go.”

Cardinals starter said it succinctly: “Yadi’s leading the way.”

Before Molina’s homer in the seventh inning, it was Flaherty leading Sunday’s game. The right-hander struck out 11 and allowed just one run in six innings, a needed turnaround after allowing a career-high nine runs against the Brewers on Tuesday.

“Jack is a smart pitcher,” Molina said. “He’s going to do whatever he can in between starts to get better, and that’s what he did. I never doubted him. He’s one of the best pitchers we have, if not the best.”

Flaherty held the Pirates to two hits while registering 21 swings and misses and 15 called strikes. It was Flaherty’s ninth career 10-plus strikeout game, and he has thrown back-to-back 10-strikeout games at PNC Park, joining Randy Johnson (three), Oliver Perez (two) and Curt Schilling (two) as the only pitchers to strikeout 10 batters in consecutive starts at PNC Park.

“He got back to who he is,” Shildt said. “He had all his repertoire working and was really back to being an elite, quality starter, and that’s Jack Flaherty. He was him today.”

The problem for the Cardinals was that Pirates starter Joe Musgrove was also cruising. The two Opening Day starters each had 11 strikeouts, and the Pirates held a 1-0 lead when the teams turned it over to their bullpens for the seventh inning.

That’s when the Cardinals’ offense showed some life -- for the second consecutive day. Matt Carpenter snapped an 0-for-23 streak with a single off Pirates reliever Derek Holland, then Molina put a knuckle curve from Holland over the left-field wall for all the run support St. Louis needed. The Cardinals struck out 15 times Sunday and had just three hits outside of the seventh inning.

When Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux met with the media at the beginning of the club’s five-game series against the Pirates, he agreed that Flaherty needed to turn things around and play a bigger role in the Cardinals’ final stretch of games.

The two reviewed video from Flaherty’s start against the Brewers, settled on a plan to change things and had a bullpen session Friday to work on that plan. Part of the goal, Maddux said, was to have Flaherty sync up his delivery and “get his confidence back.” Flaherty insisted that the confidence never wavered, it was just about making adjustments. He didn’t reveal what those adjustments were, but he was able to locate his fastball better, especially down and inside the strike zone. The slider was as deceptive as it’s been and kept the Pirates off balance.

“The execution of both the slider and the breaking ball was outstanding, and he went to it a lot early to neutralize us,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “This guy's good. We talked about it when we saw him earlier in the year. This guy's a No. 1.”

The only run scored against him came on a sacrifice fly. Flaherty walked two to lead off the fifth and sixth innings but struck out the side in both.

“The two leadoff walks [are] something you don’t want to do, but being able to make pitches off of that is something I didn’t do well last week,” Flaherty said. “I was really looking forward to this start. It’s really easy to make those days in between, after a start like that, really long because you’re just itching to get back out there. You’re a competitor, you’re itching to get back out there and get another chance to compete. It doesn’t matter who it is.”