Flaherty leads Cards within half-game of WC
Right-hander stymies Brewers for six scoreless innings in opener
ST. LOUIS -- As the Cardinals coaching staff huddled to break down that night's victory and the clubhouse cleared out, Jack Flaherty strolled into the video room. While everyone else's work was done, his was just beginning.
That was Wednesday, shortly after Flaherty learned that he'd take the mound for the opener of a key three-game showdown against the Brewers. He wanted to glean any edge he could, and thus stayed behind to sift through film.
Flaherty watched footage of himself. He studied his opponent. He cued up various in-game situations so he'd be prepared for anything that transpired. Two days later, Flaherty parlayed that preparation into six scoreless innings that paved the way for a 5-2 win that pulled the Cardinals to within a half-game of Milwaukee for the second National League Wild Card spot.
The Cardinals haven't been this close to postseason positioning since June 26.
"Doing it for the guys in the clubhouse," Flaherty said. "We're playing for each other. It doesn't matter where I am innings-count wise. It doesn't matter what month we're in. It's just my job to go out and pitch."
The 22-year-old continues to do that exceptionally well. While Flaherty may go overlooked in the conversation for the NL Rookie of the Year Award because of the seasons being put together by phenom outfielders Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr., his contributions in a Cardinals rotation that was projected to feature four pitchers currently sidelined by injury (Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright and Alex Reyes) have been critical.
He's allowed four or fewer earned runs in all 20 of his starts and trails only NL Cy Young Award hopeful Max Scherzer with 11.03 strikeouts per nine innings. Flaherty has seemingly caught a second wind, too. After a 4.71 ERA in July, he's allowed two runs in 19 August innings.
"This is a guy who is really paying attention to all aspects of his craft," interim manager Mike Shildt said. "He takes care of himself [and] is really, really meticulous about how he goes through his preparation between starts. He's prepared himself to carry the load."
The Cardinals made the calculated move to flip starts for Flaherty and Luke Weaver so that Flaherty would line up to welcome the Brewers. Flaherty had notched 22 strikeouts in two starts (12 innings) against the division rival already this season, though Friday was the first time Flaherty parlayed that dominance into a win.
He wiggled out of a jam in the first with a strikeout of Travis Shaw and then induced an inning-ending double play with runners on the corners in the third to escape his final bit of trouble on the night. Flaherty finished with seven strikeouts, bumping his season total to 134, which leads all Major League rookies.
"He's poised for his age," said Jedd Gyorko. "His stuff speaks for itself. He just goes out, pounds the zone and makes guys miss."
While Flaherty was able to tiptoe around early trouble, Milwaukee's starter Freddy Peralta wasn't as fortunate. The Cardinals, like so many teams, pounced on Peralta in the opening frame. Marcell Ozuna's 98th single of the season plated two and drove the Brewers rookie's first-inning ERA to 9.00.
Gyorko later pushed the lead to three by interrupting Peralta's strong finish with a solo homer on the first pitch of the fourth inning. It was the only hit the Cardinals tallied off Peralta after the first inning.
The two clubs traded two-run innings in the eighth, an inning Kolten Wong highlighted with a terrific defensive play and two-run double. Closer Bud Norris then converted his 24th save to seal the team's ninth win in 10 games.
"Any game we play in down the stretch is fun," Flaherty said. "Just with this team and where we're at right now, we've got a lot of excitement. We're just ready to go out each day and play."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Hicks escapes: After watching four straight Brewers reach base against Hicks with one out in the eighth, Shildt had the opportunity to go one of the three directions as Shaw stepped to the plate. Lefty Chasen Shreve was warm in the bullpen, as was Norris. Hicks had already thrown 23 pitches.
But suspecting the Brewers would pinch-hit Ryan Braun for Shaw if he summoned Shreve, Shildt stuck with the Hicks-Shaw matchup. The non-move worked. In a 3-2 game, Hicks retired Shaw and Jonathan Schoop on four pitches to end the threat and preserve St. Louis' one-run lead.
"He's always a pitch away with what he's doing with sink," Shildt said. "So I just had confidence that he was going to be able to get it done. I let him ride."
Though he's gone hitless in his last four games, Matt Carpenter extended his on-base streak to 35 games by drawing an intentional walk in his final plate appearance. Carpenter leads the Majors with 13 intentional walks, the most by a Cardinals hitter in a season since Carlos Beltran had 15 in 2012.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Wong continues to distinguish himself as a favorite for a National League Gold Glove Award at second base and made a handful of highlight-worthy plays on Friday, particularly his gem in the eighth inning to rob Keon Broxton of a leadoff single. Wong charged in on a ball that bounced over Hicks, gloved the ball and threw to first as his momentum brought him to the ground. The play drew a standing ovation from the crowd of 41,630.
"The fall down was because I had to go fast because Broxton can run," Wong said. "It was a do-or-die play, but I do practice that angle for throwing all the time, and I'll have the coaches give me a couple slow ones where I can go through it and work on that play. It's just a matter of putting in the work and when the time comes, be confident about doing it."
HE SAID IT
"No disrespect to anybody else we watch … but you're talking about an elite defender doing special things. For me, I wouldn't say it's a no-brainer, but I know where my vote would go. Kolten is more than deserving of a Gold Glove." -- Shildt, on Wong
All-Star Miles Mikolas will start opposite lefty Wade Miley as the Cardinals host the Brewers in a 6:15 p.m. CT game at Busch Stadium on Saturday. Mikolas is 2-0 with a 4.82 ERA in three starts against Milwaukee this season. With a win on Saturday, the Cardinals can secure a seventh consecutive series win and leapfrog the Brewers in the standings.