The Cardinals’ prideful muscle is finally being flexed.
The first three turns of the 2021 rotation brought about mixed results, seeing only Jack Flaherty complete six innings (once). St. Louis’ arms were ailing coming out of Spring Training, and they struggled to simply throw more innings than the bullpen.
After John Gant's stellar outing in Saturday’s 2-0 blanking of the Reds at Busch Stadium, the tide is turning.
Gant’s six shutout innings gave the Cardinals’ rotation a 1.47 ERA in its fourth turn through. The three turns prior, that mark was 6.24.
“We're a very competitive breed,” Gant said of the rotation. “Ultimately, we all just want the team to win. However it gets done is fine as long as we come away with that ‘W.’”
Here’s what the Cardinals’ rotation accomplished over the past week:
• Jack Flaherty -- 6 IP, 2 ER (and his 500th strikeout)
• Adam Wainwright -- 7 IP, 1 ER (and a history-making seventh inning)
• Carlos Martínez -- 6 IP, 1 ER (and his longest start since 2018)
• Kwang Hyun Kim -- 5 2/3 IP, 1 ER (and his first career hit)
• John Gant -- 6 IP, 0 ER (and his crispest outing of the season)
Only one quality start the first three turns morphed into four in the span of a week. One more out from Kim and that number would have been five.
“Jack set the tone, and the guys have been carrying the mail,” said manager Mike Shildt.
“We have great starters,” added catcher Andrew Knizner, who almost homered but settled for a big insurance RBI double in the sixth inning, starting in place of an ailing Yadier Molina. “A lot of it was a weird year last year, kind of leaving Spring Training [early]. Maybe guys took a little bit longer to hit their stride, but it certainly seems like our starters and our bullpen guys are pitching real well right now.”
Arguably just as important as the low earned run numbers are the higher innings totals. Through the first three turns, Cardinals starters threw merely 1 2/3 more frames than their bullpen did, putting high leverage arms into undesirable situations.
A solid week from the rotation has righted that ship, with starters now at 97 innings pitched and the bullpen at a more manageable 77 frames.
“It sets up our bullpen like we want to run it,” said Shildt, who called upon only two relievers on Saturday, one of which was Giovanny Gallegos for a two-inning save. “Those guys being able to go deeper in innings allows guys to get [late innings] more frequently with not many touches, and we can pass it around.”
All through the injuries at the outset of the season, the Cardinals preached their depth would come through, especially on the pitching staff. Gant was central to that hope, transitioning from a dependable reliever the past two seasons back into the rotation.
Saturday was not merely Gant’s longest outing since Sept. 9, 2018, but one of the most efficient from a Cardinals starter this season, tossing just 80 pitches in his six frames. It was needed to outlast Reds starter Wade Miley, who kept the offense at bay in what became a rain-delayed pitchers' duel. The Cardinals struck first in an opening frame that was delayed two hours and 20 minutes from the original first pitch, then sailed to their second shutout win of the year.
That’s the part of Gant’s day that was so impressive, how he carved through a Reds offense that bops. Gant’s 16.7 percent walk rate entering Saturday was ninth-worst in the Majors (minimum 10 IP), and high pitch counts have haunted the right-hander in the early goings. He hadn’t surpassed five innings before Saturday.
Gant’s early-season success has been a roundabout journey to finally return to the rotation, pitching solely as a reliever the past two seasons after losing a starting spot to Dakota Hudson on the last day of Spring Training in 2019. Gant was not shy about his desire to be a starter this past Spring Training, citing the adrenaline of having the tide of a game on your shoulders from the first pitch.
Wishes granted have become Cardinals wins secured.
“I can't speak enough about it, man. I love it. I love making starts,” Gant said. “Like I said before, getting a chance to go out there and pitch for a couple hours instead of a couple minutes, I'm just really digging it.”
As long as Cardinals starters keep up their ways, plenty around St. Louis will continue to dig it just the same.
“Main thing is just keep it going,” Knizner said. “Keep pitching well, and give us a chance to win a game every day.”