Flaherty shaky in season debut as Cards fall to Pirates

Flaherty allowed four runs, two earned, in three innings of work as the Cardinals fell to the Pirates 6-4 at Busch Stadium.
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty winds up during the first inning of the...
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty winds up during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Scott Kane)(Scott Kane | AP)
Published: Jun. 16, 2022 at 12:57 AM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - The Cardinals’ stated intention for the season debut of Jack Flaherty on Wednesday was to see the 26-year-old starter throw around 60 pitches—similar to the 59 he threw in his last rehab start in Triple-A—but with the jump in intensity to big-league competition representing an important stepping stone for his process.

The move to bring Flaherty to St. Louis for this start was a shift from the team’s original plan, which would have had Flaherty ramp up his pitch count to around 75 pitches during one more start in the minors. A conversation between the team and the pitcher instead led to the Cardinals providing Flaherty with the opportunity that he desired.

“(Flaherty) was very adamant about the increase in intensity being more important than the increase in workload as far as pitch count,” Marmol told reporters earlier this week. With his repertoire and his recovery feeling strong after seven minor-league innings over which only one run scored against him, Flaherty craved a crack at the real thing.

Wednesday, he got his wish. The outing didn’t unfold the way he had envisioned. Flaherty allowed four runs, two earned, in three innings of work as the Cardinals fell to the Pirates, 6-4 at Busch Stadium.

The right-hander recorded a pair of strikeouts in the first, but he also surrendered a triple, a walk, and another base hit in a marathon inning that saw him throw 31 pitches—more than half of his allotted pitch count for the night.

Flaherty was in no mood for platitudes about his outing in front of his locker after the game, denying that a rocky effort like Wednesday’s should be viewed as a necessary part of the process for a pitcher returning from injury.

“No, there’s no ‘part of the process’ of it,” Flaherty said. “If I come out and I go pitch, I want to pitch well. It’s not like, ‘Well, you pitched and it’s the first one...’ Like, bull ****. No. You go out and you feel good, and you’ve felt good this whole time. You want to go and pitch well and not have a first inning where you (don’t).”

Flaherty’s frustration was visible—and audible. At times in his response, he adapted the tone in his voice to convey a mentality to which he does not subscribe—one that suggests the journey back to his expected standard on a big-league mound had to endure a road bump like Wednesday.

“There’s no, like, ‘Oh, this is a process, this is the first one.’ Yeah, it’s the first one, but that’s just not how it works,” he continued. “Command wasn’t great. That happens. You have games like that. But it’s not always part of the process.”

Clearly, Flaherty wanted better from himself. He stated his command was “terrible” as he got into deep counts with frequency. That cost him dearly in the efficiency department, a category that takes on added weight with such a limited pitch count on the docket.

Flaherty’s velocity looked strong in the first inning, with the majority of his fastballs zipping in around 94 or 95 mph. But he wasn’t locating it as he wanted. For the latter two innings of his outing, Flaherty settled in closer to 91 or 92 on the radar gun, attributing that shift to his establishing a cruising altitude at which he could comfortably operate.

“I feel like I came out and I was trying to throw the ball through Yadi,” Flaherty said.

Though he couldn’t articulate where they came from, Flaherty admitted to experiencing some butterflies in the early going of his first MLB start since September 24, 2021. He pondered whether the added adrenaline was a factor in the uneven nature of Wednesday’s truncated performance.

“That’s about as juiced up as I’ve been, honestly,” Flaherty said. “I had to catch my breath and try to slow down there coming out. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. Usually, I keep that under wraps pretty well, but it was one of those that I had to kind of gather myself... I don’t know where it came from.

“Maybe that led to the first-inning command being a little bit off, but after that, we were able to try and settle in and go. Finally settled in, in the third. That’s one of the things about working on a short pitch count. You settle in and maybe if it’s a longer game, it turns into something different.”

Flaherty was also uncharacteristically amped when fielding a second-inning bunt by Pirates catcher Tyler Heineman. The Cardinals’ starter sailed the throw wide of first base to lead to another wonky inning, as it allowed a lead-off walk to turn into a run. Stunningly, Yadier Molina then misfired to first on the next ball in play when Pirates’ batter Hoy Park connected on a second bunt.

The consecutive throwing errors by the St. Louis battery resulted in the final two runs charged to Flaherty.

“If I play catch and throw the ball to first, then Park probably doesn’t bunt the next batter,” Flaherty said. “If I play catch and get my job done, that inning is different... You execute and do your job, good things happen.”

Flaherty cleaned up nicely for a quick 10-pitch third inning to conclude his day on the mound, landing him at 60 pitches on the dot. Despite the strong finish, the frustration from the first two innings seemed to linger for the starter. His manager displayed more satisfaction in Flaherty’s showing considering the circumstances of what the righty’s year had entailed to this point.

“I thought he actually did well, for the first time out, in controlling his nerves,” Oliver Marmol said. “He commanded his fastball, a lot of fastballs for strikes, some groundball outs. Left a couple sliders up. That hurt. But overall, still positive.

“The misplays hurt, but more importantly, he feels really good afterward.”

And that’s the key for Flaherty moving forward from a forgettable day at the office: How does he feel, physically, after it?

The pitcher’s rehab from a shoulder problem diagnosed in spring was lengthy and saw Flaherty move through various stages of rehabilitation to strengthen and fortify his muscles to improve durability and hopefully render this injured list stint his last one for a shoulder-related reason.

Flaherty stressed that the team wouldn’t have moved forward with accelerating his timeline to the big leagues when it did if he wasn’t physically prepared to handle the leap. His body felt good in the aftermath of the game, even if his mind made known his irritation at his lack of execution in a loss for his team.

Ultimately, the trajectory of his physical recovery following Wednesday’s start will be more relevant to the team’s interests than any quibbling over the outcome of it.