That potential was nixed in the first at-bat against Flaherty on Sunday, but he continued to do what the Cardinals expect him to do -- post zeros -- en route to a 2-0 win over the Pirates at PNC Park. His dominance led St. Louis to a series win and pushed its lead in the National League Central to 4 1/2 games, the largest margin the team has produced this season while at the top of the table.
After carrying a no-hitter deep into the sixth last time out, Flaherty allowed a leadoff double to Kevin Newman, one of three Pirates batters he allowed to reach scoring position on the day. But in each case, he stepped up for big outs, including an inning-ending double play facing Jacob Stallings in the fifth inning to strand Jose Osuna at third.
To begin that sequence, Flaherty fell behind 2-0, but manager Mike Shildt said he never saw his ace trying to do too much to escape the jam with a lead instead of a tie game.
“That’s the demeanor that we want: To stay present,” Shildt said. “Know that he has plenty of stuff to execute and make a pitch. Just stay in the moment and not try to do too much.”
After being held hitless for 3 2/3 innings against James Marvel, making his MLB debut, the Cardinals’ batters finally backed Flaherty up in the fifth, when Harrison Bader drove in Matt Carpenter with an RBI single. Paul Goldschmidt continued his excellence against the Pirates with an RBI double in the sixth to pad the lead.
Flaherty one-upped his last start by going even deeper on Sunday. Quick work early (19 pitches in two innings) set up a dominant eight-inning day. In particular, his four-seamer baffled Pirates hitters; the right-hander recorded seven of his 10 strikeouts on the offering (six swinging).
“He kept mixing locations, changing the spin,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Secondary pitches when he was behind in counts. He got big strikeouts in times where we had the right guys up. He’s just taken it to another level.”
Flaherty, the MLB leader in ERA since the All-Star break, drove his mark down even more, to an incredible 0.76 ERA in his last 11 starts.
It all points back to what Flaherty believed was a turning point for him, when he took a no-hitter into the seventh on July 7 against the Giants only to lose on the first hit he allowed -- a homer to Evan Longoria.
“I started executing better [after] that game,” Flaherty said. “Pitches started to feel better. I made small adjustments to not really my mechanics but just mentally, how I was going about things. Little things here and there, and kind of just tried to carry it from one start to the next.”
“Yadi did a great job behind the plate,” Shildt said. “He was phenomenal. A lot of blocks. Just really in sync with Jack, and just really had a great game plan and executed it.”
“He’s one of the best of all time back there and still, in our eyes, is the best in the game,” Flaherty said. “Anytime you get him back there, it’s fun. He’s a great guy to throw to. He knows everything. He knows the game. He knows the situations. He makes our lives really easy.”
Yet even with veterans of the level of Molina and Wainwright, it appears that the 23-year-old Flaherty will be the strongest force to try to carry the Cardinals to redemption -- the postseason -- after their short-coming last season. And in this game, “age doesn’t have to qualify you” from making an impact, Shildt said.
“Guys with that talent, but also that kind of real dedication to their craft -- and he’s clearly had this for a long time, displayed it in the organization -- it just grows,” Shildt said. “He just continues to take advantage of opportunities and get better, and here’s what we see.”