Flaherty dominates with Contreras back behind the plate

May 16th, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals hope they put to bed one of the most maddening and misunderstood storylines from the start of their 2023 season. Winning, as usual -- and winning big -- provided the best retort.

Jack Flaherty pitched his most dominant game in years while working to the catcher who had been seemingly singled out for some of the Cardinals’ early pitching woes, Willson Contreras, in the team’s 18-1 win over the Brewers on Monday at Busch Stadium. It was the Cardinals’ fourth consecutive victory and seventh win in their past eight games.

The last time Contreras had started at catcher, Flaherty was on the Busch Stadium mound as well. The prized right-hander didn’t make it through three innings in that May 4 game vs. the Angels, allowing 10 runs on nine hits, and he declined to answer a question afterward about the pitches Contreras had called.

Two days later, the Cardinals announced Contreras would not be catching for awhile and it inadvertently launched speculation about Contreras’ preparation that they feel spun out of control in the ensuing days.

After Monday’s game, in which Flaherty struck out 10 Brewers over seven scoreless innings, the team is hoping that narrative disappears into the ether. Flaherty, a key cog in this team’s rotation because of his ability to get swings and misses, looked entirely in command after a shaky first inning, flashing a mid-90s fastball and, at times, devastating breaking pitches.

"That's one thing I wasn't surprised about,” Brewers first baseman Rowdy Tellez said. “A big league pitcher, a good big league pitcher, they're going to have their bad days and bad stretches, and they're going to have their good days and good stretches. They said he had bad command? I mean, today he felt good and he looked good. He had his stuff. That's as plain as it is."

Flaherty had his first double-digit-strikeout game since Sept. 20, 2020, and the 10th of his career. He hadn’t gone seven innings or more since May 7, 2021.

“Willson was unbelievable tonight,” Flaherty said. “He called every single pitch. I may have called one pitch tonight. It was one of those things where we were able to roll. Just the way he’s gone about his business, DHing for a while, and to call a game the way he did and catch the way he did tonight was a testament to how he is as a player.”

The result left little doubt about what Contreras’ role is moving forward on a team that is hoping to dig out of the hole it dug itself and is showing signs of doing just that.

“He will be the everyday catcher, and we will benefit a lot from that,” manager Oliver Marmol said.

The team maintains that Contreras’ temporary removal from catching duties wasn’t a statement on his overall catching acumen, but it was meant to allow him time to grasp the nuances of how they plan for opposing lineups. They point to his improved pitch-framing numbers, for example, as a measure of his defensive value. Going into Monday, his framing ranked 40th among 69 MLB catchers who had called at least 100 pitches this season.

The Cardinals’ hot play of late has restored their relevance in the NL Central. They have made up 3 1/2 games in the standings since May 6. They remain in last place, but they are now 6 1/2 games out of first.

One of the main culprits for the team’s sluggish start has been shaky starting pitching. The Cardinals’ rotation entered Monday with 1.1 fWAR and a 5.32 ERA, both of which ranked 25th in the Majors.

“What was said a few weeks ago was out of frustration and was more about myself in terms of executing pitches and making pitches, and that’s something I haven’t done,” Flaherty told reporters over the weekend. “Whoever is behind the plate isn’t going to change that. I mean, that’s on me to execute.”

Monday didn’t start with much promise. Flaherty threw balls with his first five pitches, and Jesse Winker fisted a single to left field to give the Brewers two on with nobody out, but Flaherty regrouped to strike out Willy Adames on an 83.8 mph changeup, and after another walk, Flaherty induced an inning-ending double play from Contreras’ younger brother, William, to escape the jam.

Then, the Cardinals rallied for three quick runs against Freddy Peralta on Nolan Arenado’s home run tucked into the left-field corner. It was Arenado’s fourth consecutive game with a home run, as the superstar has begun to warm up after a slow start to his season as well.

Flaherty’s stuff seemed dramatically improved Monday compared to his previous start. In one two-batter sequence in the second inning, Flaherty struck out Brice Turang on a 75.3 mph curveball and Tyrone Taylor on a 95.2 mph fastball.

In the bottom of the second, Paul Goldschmidt hit an RBI double, and the Cards held a 4-0 lead before posting a four-run sixth and then erupting for a 10-run eighth, during which the Brewers summoned infielder Mike Brosseau to get the final out.

Nolan Gorman had the first five-RBI game of his career as part of the Cards' onslaught, which included his 10th home run of the season.