ST. LOUIS -- Fairly often on afternoons at Busch Stadium, the most entertaining batting-practice show comes from an unlikely source. Carlos Martinez doesn't hit the farthest home runs or the most frequent, but when he connects, he often finishes on one knee, his bat held high and a smile strapped
ST. LOUIS -- Fairly often on afternoons at Busch Stadium, the most entertaining batting-practice show comes from an unlikely source. Carlos Martinez doesn't hit the farthest home runs or the most frequent, but when he connects, he often finishes on one knee, his bat held high and a smile strapped across his face. Few peg the Cardinals ace as capable of such power.
That's because in game settings, it's largely eluded him. Until Wednesday, that is, when Martinez's first career homer backed another strong start and highlighted the Cardinals' 3-2 win over the White Sox.
• Arms That Hammer Sweepstakes
"I never hit a home run in my life," Martinez said. "I was waiting for it."
• Teammates go wild after Martinez's first homer
The same could be said about this version of Martinez on the mound, though to a smaller degree. All spring, Cardinals officials hoped the influence of new pitching coach Mike Maddux would help elevate Martinez from his status as the club's top pitcher and into the conversation of the game's top pitchers, period.
More than a month into the season, he's been just that, the owner now of a 1.40 ERA across seven starts. Wednesday, he plucked predominantly from his bucket of different fastballs to hold Chicago to one run in 7 1/3 innings, scattering five hits and striking out five against two walks.
"We've seen seven starts at that next tier," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "That's consistently the type of stuff and execution that puts you on a different level, and he's been there. I looked up at the scoreboard and saw something about his April numbers being as good as anybody ever in this uniform. That says a lot about the start that he's had."
Martinez allowed two runs across 33 1/3 innings in April, giving him the lowest first-month ERA by a Cardinals starter since at least 1913. Throw out an ugly Opening Day start in March, and Martinez was a strong candidate for National League Pitcher of the Month, which Max Scherzer won Wednesday. Scherzer pitched under Maddux with the Nationals, giving the Cardinals an elite pitcher for Martinez to look to as a template.
"They pushed me, always telling me to focus and never lose it," Martinez said. "This is my opportunity right now."
And still, it was his bat that stole the show Wednesday.
"I was trying to help myself," Martinez said.
He did by ambushing a first-pitch fastball from losing pitcher Lucas Giolito in the sixth, breaking a scoreless tie with a 407-foot shot that landed in the left-field bleachers. Always a relatively strong contact hitter, Martinez had previously managed just six extra-base hits (all doubles) across 227 career plate appearances. He celebrated by taking a 27.9-second trot around the bases that teammates compared to Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets slugger known for not exactly hurrying after he leaves the yard. Martinez then earned a water splash from William Fowler, and among other celebratory antics typical of the Cardinals dugout.
"He's the guy who a lot of time is leading a lot of the stuff that happens after our home runs, so I'm sure they were ready to reciprocate," Matheny said. "He wanted to relish it, make it last. It didn't bother me."
Groggy for much of the afternoon, the Cardinals offense awoke from there. Fowler added a two-run homer off Giolito, before the White Sox inched closer against Dominic Leone in the eighth. Bud Norris earned his sixth save, and second of more than three outs, to preserve Martinez's stellar day on both sides of the ball.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Fowler takes flight: Fowler's two-run homer in the seventh gave the Cardinals a three-run lead, and marked the 100th long ball of his career. It also came with the right fielder mired in a 2-for-21 funk, his batting average resting at .161 before the at-bat.
"My confidence is always been there," Fowler said. "But anytime you get hits, you're happy."
Fowler has been hitting down in the order for much of the last week, after his second straight slow start.
"Dex felt good about his swing today," Matheny said. "You can talk about it all you want, but once they feel it, it's not going to translate. Good things happen when Dex finds the barrel."
Another save for Norris: Yo-yoed back and forth from the closer's role in response to Greg Holland's rough start, Norris again proved dependable at the back end. He stranded the tying run at first in the eighth after the White Sox crawled back with two in the frame, then pitched a 1-2-3 ninth. Norris is perfect in six save chances, and sports a 1.72 ERA across 15 appearances overall.
"It's amazing how Bud has come through in big situations," Matheny said. "He's one of those guys that's pretty rare right now, who you can go to for four or five outs, and he figures out a way to get it done. What an addition to our club he's been." More >
• Martinez did not hit a batter for the first time this season, and for the first time in eight starts dating back to last year. The seven-game streak with at least one hit batsman was tied for the third longest in baseball history.
• Yadier Molina went 2-for-3 with a run scored in his 1,743 career game caught. He passed Johnny Bench for sole possession of 16th place on the all-time list.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
It was first baseman Jose Martinez who compared Carlos Martinez's slow trot around the bases to Cespedes, a comparison that's strikingly accurate. According to Statcast™, it takes Cespedes 27.44 seconds, on average, to circle the bases after a homer. That's only a half-second slower than Martinez took.
HE SAID IT
"He loses his bat, his bat hits the batting cage. Watching him take BP is always funny. He takes a thousand swings with everything he has." -- Jose Martinez, talking about Carlos Martinez.
Busch Stadium figures to be packed when the Cubs come to town Friday at 7:15 p.m. CT, for the first of a three-game set. Miles Mikolas (3-0, 3.27) gets the ball for St. Louis, while Chicago will counter with lefty Jose Quintana (3-1, 5.74 ERA). The two clubs split their first head-to-head matchup last month at Wrigley Field, which was truncated due to weather.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.