ATLANTA -- As the Cardinals were in the process of saving their season with Monday’s come-from-behind, walk-off Game 4 win over the Braves, manager Mike Shildt and pitching coach Mike Maddux were approached by Jack Flaherty. Flaherty was supposed to be waiting in the wings for Game 5, the ace in the hole the Cardinals would hand the ball to should they survive. But with everything on the line, it didn’t sit well with Flaherty to sit on the sidelines.
“He was very pro being available, and I certainly respect the mindset and the heart of the competition for him and his desire to be there for his team,” Shildt said. “He said, ‘I got an inning and I got a 0.”'
Now the Cardinals hope he can give them at least seven.
After they opted to deploy Miles Mikolas in emergency all-hands-on-deck duty instead, the Cardinals not only earned the right to head back to Atlanta to play for their lives again, they earned the chance to do so behind Flaherty -- their emergent, undisputed ace -- in a winner-take-all situation on Wednesday at SunTrust Park.
Flaherty gets the ball in what will be a rematch with Mike Foltynewicz, who outdueled Flaherty in Atlanta’s 3-0 Game 2 victory.
“Me and [pitching coach Mike Maddux] said, well, we appreciate that but we need to take care of you,” Shildt said. “And we need to take the opportunity for Game 5.”
Consider it a prescient gamble for the Cardinals, who’ve long groomed Flaherty for moments like this. Before he broke out into one of baseball’s best pitchers this summer, the Cards made sure Flaherty came in close contact with others connected to the organization who’ve held similar status. The relationships with Adam Wainwright and Bob Gibson were cultivated in 2018, when Flaherty pitched to a 3.34 ERA as a rookie. This year, Flaherty said he leaned on Chris Carpenter, who serves as a special advisor and was no stranger to big October moments.
The Cardinals were rewarded when the 22-year-old Flaherty turned a corner this July, then went 10-5 with a 0.91 ERA over 15 starts down the stretch.
“This is your job,” Flaherty said of stepping up in the postseason. “This is what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to get the ball in these kind of situations. And these are situations where you turn to your guy: 'Hey, we need a win here, go take the ball, give us what you've got.'”
That’s what the Cardinals did in Game 162, needing a victory to win the NL Central outright. Flaherty obliged, delivering seven scoreless innings to beat the Cubs. He was nearly as good in last week’s Game 2, largely matching Foltynewicz pitch for pitch before surrendering Adam Duvall’s two-run homer in the seventh. All told, Flaherty was charged with three runs over seven in his postseason debut, while the Cardinals were shut out.
The Cardinals expect another narrow margin on Wednesday.
“I mean, there's the potentiality of that in the fact of familiarity, seeing guys,” Shildt said. “I do believe and always will believe that while that can lend itself to picking up something, whether it's a nuance thing or just release point or shape of the pitch, I also believe that execution of your pitch is still going to, a lot of times, win the day.
"So it will be about who executes for the most part, but familiarity is something that is a factor.”
Speaking at the SunTrust Park podium last week, veteran infielder Matt Carpenter liked Flaherty for these moments because of his competitiveness and drive, which his teammates consistently laud. Carpenter explained how Flaherty “pitched with anger,” drawing parallels to the way Gibson and Chris Carpenter attacked hitters with similar ferocity. Both became multiple-time World Series champions and enjoyed extremely successful postseason careers.
“I think Jack has a fondness and a mutual respect for Gibby and Carp specifically because their styles are similar,” Matt Carpenter said. “Jack pitches with a lot of anger. Like, a lot. It’s respected. It’s feared. As his career goes on, it will become more feared.”
Flaherty on Tuesday called pitching “a heavyweight fight, and it’s me versus the guy in the box.”
“So every time I've gone on the mound, I mean, it's kind of getting in that zone and getting into that mental state and kind of whatever it takes,” Flaherty said. “That's something that's kind of gone on since I was in high school. My high school coach kind of talked about it. He said, 'You just turn into a different kind of animal or different kind of beast once you get on the mound.'”
If that beastly version of Flaherty is unleashed on Wednesday, the Cardinals could soon find themselves back in the NLCS.
“It’s going to be fun,” Flaherty said. “It’s one of those things you live for. Game 5, win or go home. What’s there not to be excited about?”