Flaherty named Cards' Opening Day starter

February 25th, 2021

JUPITER, Fla. -- Throughout his struggles of 2020, many of them caused by a pause in the season that from a pure baseball standpoint affected him greatly, never lost the confidence of the Cardinals.

It’s not that last season was purely cast aside as an aberration -- there was plenty to be gleaned -- but balancing Flaherty's struggles with the myriad uncertainties meant St. Louis took his results with a grain of salt, and always believed that the Flaherty of years past was still in there.

On Thursday the club made its backing of that belief public.

“Jack Flaherty will not only be our starting pitcher [in the Grapefruit League opener] on Sunday,” manager Mike Shildt said, “but Jack will also be our Opening Day starter when we open up in Cincinnati.”

The outing on April 1 against the Reds will be the second consecutive Opening Day nod for the 25-year-old Flaherty, who spun seven innings of two-run ball against the Pirates to open the 2020 season. He joins the ranks of four other Cards -- Joe Magrane, Dizzy Dean, Lee Meadows and Johnny Lush -- with multiple Opening Day starts before turning 26.

“We evaluated last year, but relative to how it boded for Jack this year, it was an evaluation that we appreciate how he went about it, and he grew from it,” Shildt said. “Now he's got an opportunity to move forward. And he's our guy. … My confidence in Jack never waned at any moment last year."

After facing the Pirates on July 24, Flaherty didn't pitch again until Aug. 19, as his second turn in the rotation had been set to come just as the club’s COVID-19 outbreak put a pause on the campaign. When he returned, he was kept on a strict pitch count, and threw only 105 total pitches over his first two outings post-pause.

As fervent a competitor as Flaherty is, that may have been a tough plan to accept at the time, but he appreciates the caution, with his long-term health in mind.

“There was an understanding that we don't want to lower our bars and our expectations of what we expect of our guys," Shildt said. “Jack would really set the bar higher than anybody for himself, but we are realistic about some of the challenges and obstacles that were faced last year, specific to Jack.”

Flaherty pitched to a 6.45 ERA in his first six starts after the club resumed play. His penultimate start of the regular season was easily his best of the shortened campaign: six innings, two hits, one run, 11 strikeouts. It was at that point that he began to look like his old self, though he would eventually take a tough-luck loss in Game 3 of the Wild Card Series against the Padres, during which he allowed just one earned run in six innings.

“I don't think my stuff was ever perfect or the way I wanted it, or it was crisp or as sharp," Flaherty said on Tuesday. "I probably put a little bit too much on myself. We’re just going to try to carry that playoff start over into this year.”

What about Waino?

Pegging Flaherty as their No. 1 was just the Cards' first step in solidifying their rotation. When asked if could be lined up at No. 2, which would set him to start St. Louis’ home opener on April 8 -- a deserved honor for the club’s “legacy” pitcher entering his 16th season -- Shildt welcomed the possibility.

“I think it'd be a wonderful opportunity,” Shildt said. “We also know we have to figure out the rotation that gives us the best chance to compete. And hopefully, those can match you up and that could work out, because I think that would be a nice tribute for Adam, and well deserved.”

It would make sense, given that Wainwright’s excellent 2020 season likely vaulted him toward a top-end role in this season and that his future beyond ‘21 is unclear. (He re-signed on a one-year deal in January.) Like batterymate Yadier Molina, Wainwright is starting to plan on a year-to-year basis, taking into account his health, his durability and his opportunity to contribute.

Behind Flaherty and Wainwright, the Cards have Kwang Hyun Kim, Miles Mikolas (back from year-long injury) and an open competition for the No. 5 spot.

Spring broadcast schedule unveiled

The Cardinals also announced on Thursday that 12 of their 24 Grapefruit League games will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Midwest, and 18 on KMOX 1120 AM; all 24 can be followed in some format on Cardinals.com or through MLB.TV.

Starting Sunday, with Flaherty’s spring debut against the Nationals, Fox Sports play-by-play announcer Dan McLaughlin will be joined by Jim Edmonds, Brad Thompson and Ricky Horton for the Grapefruit League slate, while Mike Shannon, John Rooney, Ricky Horton and Mike Claiborne will be at the KMOX microphone.