ST. LOUIS -- After eluding bats around the Majors for more than two months, Jack Flaherty slipped vs. the Brewers, and it wasn't the first time Milwaukee has gotten the best of him.
The Cardinals right-hander, who entered Saturday night with a 7.11 ERA in four starts against Milwaukee this season, allowed three runs on five hits over six innings in a 5-2 loss at Busch Stadium.
The loss shrunk the Cardinals’ National League Central lead to three games over the second-place Cubs, who beat the Pirates for the second straight day on Saturday, and four games over the Brewers.
Two of Flaherty’s three losses since July 7 have come against the Brewers -- the last was on Aug. 28, when he allowed three runs (two earned) at Miller Park.
“It feels like you're in a two-strike count every time you get up, just because [Flaherty’s] stuff is so good,” said Brewers third baseman Mike Moustakas, who hit a two-run homer off Flaherty in the fourth inning. “Every pitch he throws is a plus pitch, and you're up there battling. For us to put together a couple of runs and get some guys on base against him was huge.”
But fear not: There were plenty of positive takeaways from Flaherty’s outing Saturday.
Consider that Saturday night was the first time since July 2 that Flaherty had allowed more than two earned runs. That was a stretch of 12 starts during which Flaherty held opposing hitters to a .146 average and had a 0.80 ERA.
“Jack’s been outstanding,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “He’s an elite pitcher now in this league and continues to prove it and did it again tonight. We just weren’t able to get as many runs for him as we would have liked to.”
Flaherty still gave the Cardinals a quality start -- his 17th of the season. Despite the three runs he allowed, Flaherty still showed the characteristics of the commanding pitcher he has become over the past two months, which he will need to continue displaying as the Cardinals seek their first postseason berth since 2015.
Saturday was the fourth time this season Flaherty has struck out 10 batters, and he reached a milestone with his fourth of the night. In the top of the third inning, Flaherty struck out Cory Spangenberg swinging on a 79-mph knuckle-curve for his 200th strikeout of the season. He became the first Cardinals pitcher with 200 strikeouts in a season since 2017 (Carlos Martinez, 217) and the youngest pitcher in franchise history to strike out 200 in a season.
“I’d rather win,” Flaherty said, unfazed by the milestone.
Still, Flaherty has commanded the strike zone over his second-half run, which has allowed him to control counts and pitch deep into games. In turn, he has limited potential damage, like he did on Saturday night.
In the sixth inning, Flaherty loaded the bases with two walks and a single with one out. He was able to allow just one run while inducing a forceout and popup.
“Jack doesn’t chase the strikeouts as much as he used to because he’s learned his craft to pitch,” Shildt said. “But that’s also how you get the quality of strikeouts and go deep in games.”
“I felt like [the command] was a little bit forced early in the year of trying way too hard, trying to do way too much as opposed to just going out and pitching,” said Flaherty, who pointed to a start on July 2 against the Mariners as the moment where he was "able to recognize that I don’t need to try as hard. That was kind of the one where I said, ‘OK, I don’t need to try so hard to be perfect.’
“From there, it was going out trying to execute one pitch at a time and continuing to focus and try to hit spots and locate.”
Flaherty’s sixth-inning escape kept the Cardinals within one until Yasmani Grandal’s two-run home run in the eighth off left-hander Tyler Webb, who walked Trent Grisham before the clout. Shildt said that he didn’t go with lefty Andrew Miller for the eighth because the Cardinals were down and Webb has been good in that spot lately.
“It’s uncharacteristic of Tyler,” Shildt said. “He throws strikes. So Grisham, he made a really close pitch that was a ball, but close pitch. Then got a changeup up to Grandal.
“That’s [the Brewers’] game, a big part of their game, is the home runs. They got a couple of two-run homers that ended up being the difference of the game.”