Flaherty's 'foot on the gas' delivers NLCS

October 11th, 2019

ATLANTA -- While some corners of the baseball world wondered if would even take the mound Wednesday night, then went along wondering when he’d come off it, the thought barely permeated the Cardinals' dugout as they sprinted toward the National League Championship Series with a 13-1, Game 5 NL Division Series win over the Braves at SunTrust Park. Flaherty was dealing.

He was pitching when it looked like he’d be locked into another duel with Mike Foltynewicz, who outpitched him during Friday's Game 2. He was pitching when the Cardinals thrashed that narrative in emphatic, immediate fashion, breaking out for a postseason record 10 first-inning runs to stun Atlanta and put champagne on ice hours before it would be popped. He was pitching to thwart the off chance that double-digit lead would not stand up, eventually throwing 104 pitches over six innings as St. Louis cruised to its first NLCS since 2014.

The Cardinals -- who'll have home-field advantage -- will face the Nationals in Game 1 at 7 p.m. CT Friday at Busch Stadium as they battle for the NL pennant. Washington beat the Dodgers, 7-3, in 10 innings during Game 5 of the other NLDS on Wednesday night.

Simply put: With the Cardinals’ season on the line, Flaherty was pitching until they were absolutely sure they were extending it. Tomorrow be darned. St. Louis had to get there first.

“If you pull him after one or two [innings] and something crazy starts happening in your bullpen, no, it's not the play,” manager Mike Shildt said. “I’m always thinking, but I did not think about [pulling Flaherty] after the first. That would have been pretty brazen.”

Shildt said the thought began trickling in in the fifth. That was when Flaherty, pitching with a 12-run lead, rekindled the tension that’s been bubbling all series by plunking Ronald Acuña Jr. on the arm. Acuña jawed at Flaherty on the way to first. Flaherty stood stoic behind the mound; he later denied any intent. He needed 28 pitches to complete the frame.

“And typical Jack, he wanted that sixth inning, he wanted to go out -- he wasn't real pleased with what that looked like,” Shildt said. “We scored 10, [but] that's a really good team over there. So you don't want to sit there and take it lightly. You want to make sure you bring it home. Hard to start managing for the next series before you win this one.”

By that point, the prospect of saving Flaherty for either of the first two games of this weekend’s NLCS had come and gone. The Cardinals will have their ace for Monday’s Game 3, in all likelihood. And that’s a reality they made peace with when they left Flaherty out there to power through the middle innings. Flaherty also had four at-bats, including one in the sixth, half an inning after hitting Acuña.

Flaherty threw 21 pitches in the first. He had 33 after two, 47 after three and 66 after four. Yanking him at any of those points would’ve conceivably put him in line to come back on short rest as early as Saturday’s Game 2.

“I quickly put that to bed, saying, ‘Win the game,’” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told the Athletic. “I think when you start getting cute and trying to manipulate things, it gets dangerous.”

Assured the game was his, Flaherty said his focus then became “continuing to go out and battling and keeping my foot on the gas.” The Cardinals did the same, deploying their highest-leverage reliever in after Flaherty in the seventh. They tabbed , another late-inning contributor, for the eighth. The Braves went out with a whimper, managing just two baserunners over the final four innings.

“A ten-run lead in the first on the road, that kinda takes the crowd out of it, takes the air out of the stadium,” Flaherty said. “It wasn’t difficult to stay focused, but you need to get back in there, get the adrenaline going again. It’s easy to take your foot off the gas. I put my foot on the gas and never stopped.”

At 23 years old, Flaherty became the youngest starter since Jaret Wright (1997 American League Division Series) to earn a victory in a winner-take-all postseason game.

Said Braves manager Brian Snitker: “It's almost like he gets stronger as he goes. He doesn't tire. He just keeps getting stronger … You take him out, but on any given start I look at a guy like that [and think] he can throw all night. He’s not going to get tired.”

Asked when he’d be available again, a champagne-soaked Flaherty said, “I don’t even know what day the games are or what day of the week it is right now. So whenever they tell me to go again is when I’ll go again.”