Jack Flaherty's outing in Monday’s 7-2 Grapefruit League loss to the Marlins probably could have ended after five innings. He didn’t necessarily need the buildup of the 13 pitches he threw in the sixth, already up to around 80 on the day, nor did he need to show the Cardinals much in the way of his readiness for the regular season.
Flaherty needed to pitch into the sixth inning for himself.
The Marlins opened the bottom of the fifth with back-to-back singles, plating a run when Matt Carpenter's fielding error on a groundout allowed the leadoff runner to score. A batter later, Flaherty fielded a slow roller up the first-base line and sailed the throw to Carpenter, allowing the Magneuris Sierra to get all the way to third. A wild pitch in the ensuing at-bat scored Sierra, and a home run the next pitch made it a four-run frame.
Back out for the sixth, Flaherty sat down his first batter in seven pitches, featuring a fastball that topped at 95.5 mph and nimbly dropped down to 91.8 on the putaway pitch.
“It was important for him to feel like he could go back out,” said manager Mike Shildt. “ … He wanted to get out there, more mentally, to get used to going back for that sixth inning.”
Outside of that arduous fifth inning, it was a “tremendous day for Jack,” Shildt said. The right-hander struck out five across 5 1/3 frames. Monday was just Flaherty’s third Grapefruit League start, as the club has given him a healthy dose of back-field simulated game action to work in a controlled atmosphere.
But the lack of games has not wavered readiness for Flaherty, who will have one more brief outing before camp closes; whether it’s another back-field or Grapefruit League game is to be determined.
“It feels like the season’s here,” Flaherty said. “It feels like the spring has gone real quick. I mean, I think we're out of here in a week, which is crazy to think about. But yeah, ready to go.”
Flaherty may be entering the most crucial season of his career. Coming off a turbulent campaign in which he ramped up and down numerous times because of the club’s July COVID-19 outbreak, he’s looking for a bounce-back.
And he’s looking to reassert himself atop an ailing rotation to start the year. Kwang Hyun Kim (back tightness) is questionable for his first turn through the rotation, while Miles Mikolas (right shoulder soreness) has been ruled out. The Cardinals like their chances with John Gant, Daniel Ponce de Leon and others to pick up the slack.
But the Cardinals will need Flaherty to pitch like they know he’s capable of to lead the rotation to where they think it can reach. Monday -- and specifically one more at-bat in the sixth inning -- was cause for that confidence.
“Jack's been a guy that's gotten better as the camp has gone,” Shildt said. “Just want more of that.”
Kim hits a benchmark
Kim took another step forward as he tries to ready himself for the Opening Day rotation, tossing two innings in a simulated game on a back field on Monday.
“Changeup was really good, slider, effective fastball, lot of movement,” Shildt said. “He was good, couple ups and downs, looked sharp.”
Kim has thrown a pair of bullpens and has now faced live hitters once since going down with back tightness a little under two weeks ago. His next step will be a Grapefruit League game if he recovers well from the simulated game, and how that unfolds will likely determine his readiness for his first turn in the rotation. Kim was thought to be ahead of schedule in his recovery, but the Cardinals are without many in-game options to build him back up before the regular season opens.
Around the horn
• Dylan Carlson and his white-hot bat continued his late-camp surge on Monday, blasting a homer way out of Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. Carlson, a switch-hitter, has said he’s focused on honing in from the left side of the plate over the remainder of camp, and he now has five hits in his last three games -- all from the left side -- after adding an RBI single in the fourth.
• A rough spring continued for Carpenter, who went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, bringing those totals to 1-for-29 with 13 punchouts through 13 games.
“Am I concerned? Not overly,” Shildt said. “I think Carp is more than capable of being a productive player for us, and I expect him to be just that. Is it weighing on him? I have to imagine probably. Can’t speak for him, but he’s coming in with a good attitude.”