St. Louis Cardinals

Tragedy sharpened Flaherty’s focus, fueled his emergence as Cardinals’ dominant ace

Jack Flaherty has been center stage for the resurgent St. Louis Cardinals throughout the second half of the season, but there’s been no performance more impactful than that which he will be expected to turn in in Friday’s second game of the National League Division Series.

If there’s any doubt that he’s up for the challenge, then you don’t know Jack.

“Simply put, excited, just to be here with these guys, be in this situation,” Flaherty said at SunTrust Park on Thursday. “Know how far we’ve come through this season.”

Flaherty blossomed into the Cardinals’ unquestioned ace this season, finishing with an 11-8 record and 2.75 ERA in 33 starts. That represents the most starts of any pitcher and the lowest earned run average among starters by more than half a run, and even that isn’t representative of the dominance Flaherty displayed in the season’s closing months.

His ERA after the All-Star break was a miniscule 0.91. He allowed as many home runs as hit by pitches – five of each – over 99 1/3 innings during that stretch. He struck out 124 batters and walked only 23. He recorded 13 quality starts (at least six innings pitched with three or fewer earned runs) in his 15 appearances, and in the other two, he allowed a single earned run across 9 1/3 innings.

He was the National League Pitcher of the Month in both August and September. The accolades may exceed the available adjectives.

“I don’t think I’m going to try to go out and do anything more,” the perpetually modest Flaherty said. “Every game that we had in the second half we went out and played well.”

That he was able to turn in a performance that impressive in the shadow of personal tragedy adds another layer to Flaherty’s dominance. He was close friends with Tyler Skaggs, the Los Angeles Angels pitcher who died of a drug overdose on July 1.

Flaherty insisted on taking the ball for his scheduled start the next day in Seattle, and on that day and every since, he’s carried Skaggs’s name and number written on his cleats and has drawn “TS 45” in the dirt of the pitcher’s mound before each start.

Cleats belonging to St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty are seen as he sits in the dugout during the sixth inning of the team’s baseball game against the Colorado Rockies on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) Jeff Roberson AP

“Every time I get the ball I kind of come from behind the mound and I see (the initials and number), not necessarily before every pitch but before every hitter.” Flaherty said. “No matter what goes on, I see his name, his initials right there. He’s always with me. I can feel him. You just feel that energy.”

Flaherty was part of a group of players who each wore “Love You Ty” on the nameplates of their jerseys during MLB’s Players Weekend. Despite the challenges that come with losing a friend and colleague too young and with no warning, the off-field heartbreak has helped shaped Flaherty into the adversity-defying pitcher that he needs to be on the field.

“I think staying grounded has been something that I was raised to be,” Flaherty said. “My mom was always like that. She always preached being humble and just kind of being ourselves, never forget where you came from.

“But everything that’s gone on off the field with the guys in the clubhouse, the guys we have on this team, they make it easy. We all have each other’s back no matter what’s gone on, and guys go through things that people don’t really ever hear about.”

Flaherty started twice against the Braves this season, allowing three earned runs, going 1-0 with three earned runs scattered across 12 innings pitched. In his second start, he threw six shutout innings and struck out seven without walking a batter before taking a no decision after Jordan Hicks allowed three runs in the ninth.

If the Braves’ offense runs based on power, it’s Flaherty who has the power on the mound to match them.

“It’s a deep lineup,” said Flaherty. “They’ve got professional hitters up and down; they’ve got professional hitters, guys who are exciting.

“They just put good at-bats together no matter what, don’t really give any at-bats away. As long as we go out execute our game, execute what we need to do, we’ll be in a good position.”

It will be Flaherty’s execution that is perhaps the biggest key to the Cardinals’ success in this round and moving forward in the postseason. He crushed the Chicago Cubs on Sunday to clinch the division – seven shutout innings on only 69 pitches – and has been lined up to start a decisive game five of this series, if necessary.

Catcher Yadier Molina referred to Flaherty as “our horse” several times in the course of Sunday’s locker room celebration, and the Cardinals now find themselves in the position to ride him to whatever finish he can provide.