ST. LOUIS -- With each rehab start Jack Flaherty makes, he delves further into a lifestyle he has never quite known. The 25-year-old has been on the injured list only once in his career (missing a month and a half as a Minor Leaguer in 2015, his first full professional season) before his current left oblique injury, which has kept him sidelined for more than two months.
Flaherty is gaining steam toward a return. The Cardinals right-hander is set to make his third Minor League rehab start Friday with Double-A Springfield, but until those become starts at the Major League level, Flaherty won’t feel fully satisfied.
There's good news for him: St. Louis manager Mike Shildt said on Wednesday that should Flaherty recover well from his start Friday, his next outing could come at the Major League level, likely next week in either the Pirates or Royals series on the road.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Flaherty said on the field prior to Tuesday’s series opener against the Braves at Busch Stadium, where he threw on flat ground two days after his latest rehab start. “But you know, at this point, I’m a little impatient.”
That has been the toughest pill for Flaherty to swallow in this bout with injury. A staunch competitor, learning closely from the late Bob Gibson, he has been publicly lauded for his innate attention to preparation and detail, allowing him to grow into the Cardinals’ ace at his young age -- not just because he has the refinement in his process, but because he has seldom been sidelined from doing so.
But it’s also why the Cardinals are being cautious as they return Flaherty from this injury specifically, which can be a tricky one. Fortunately, his oblique strain, which consisted of a partial tear, impacted his left side, which meant he could resume light throwing on a quicker basis in June and July. But caution has been the norm with him, harkening back to the tepid pace at which St. Louis built Flaherty up following the club’s COVID-19 outbreak last season.
Luckily for Flaherty, he’s likely facing only the one more rehab start before he returns to the Cardinals. He has made two already, last working through a rough first inning with Triple-A Memphis on Sunday to build up to 58 pitches across three frames.
His first time out, on July 27, was far smoother: two innings, one hit and three strikeouts on 31 pitches (21 strikes).
"Everything feels pretty good. Everything's coming out pretty sharp,” Flaherty said. "First outing went well, and then the last one, I was working on a couple things in the first inning [breaking pitches] and then it was pretty smooth after that."
Really, the only box Flaherty feels he has left to check off (as well as hitting) is his endurance and pitch count. All recoveries from his outings have been positive, he said, and all pitches are starting to feel right where he left off in May, when he led the Majors in wins before finding himself sidelined.
So Flaherty will be back soon, a positive sign for the Cardinals, St. Louis and baseball in general. And when that happens, there won’t be anyone more ecstatic.
“Early on, it sucked. It was terrible. Not fun. Sitting around watching games, knowing I can't do anything right now. So that wasn't fun,” Flaherty said. “And since we've been getting closer, it's really just taking it one day at a time. Take a couple days to be frustrated, be upset and then we're going to take it one day at a time: ‘What can I do each and every day to maximize the day and maximize trying to get better and healthy and get back?’”