Perhaps the two most consistent characteristics of the 2019 Cardinals in the last three months have been an uneven performance from the offense and domination from starter Jack Flaherty.
The former is perhaps the kindest description of the National League Championship Series to date, and so the latter becomes an absolute necessity.
Flaherty will take the ball for the Cardinals on Monday as they attempt to dig their way out of 2-0 deficit to the Washington Nationals. When he throws his first pitch at Nationals Park, he’ll be the first visiting starter to throw from a Washington mound in a postseason round later than the Division Series since Hal Schumaker pitched game five of the 1933 World Series for the New York Giants against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium.
“I just try to stay within the moment and control the things that I can control and stay here and stay present and kind of look back on everything once the season’s over with,” Flaherty said Sunday.
He also said he’d never heard of Schumaker.
“We’re happy to have Jack going, we’re happy to go compete,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said Saturday at Busch Stadium. “The fact of the matter is this is a team that the word resilient has been used internally, but it’s really also been a moniker used externally, rightfully so. And you’re going to see it in full force.”
Flaherty made his first two career postseason starts in the division series against the Atlanta Braves, and he was strong in both. He took a hard luck loss while allowing three runs over seven innings in Game 2, as Atlanta’s Mike Foltynewicz danced around the bottom of the zone with a tight slider. In Game 5, he had a 10-run lead before he touched the ball, and breezed through six innings, allowing only one run – a solo homer – on four hits.
That experience in a clinching game, atypical though it may have been, will serve Flaherty well in Monday’s contest.
The Cardinals may not technically have their backs against the wall, but a loss to go down 3-0 in the series would portend almost certain calamity. Only one team in major league history has won a series after trailing by that margin; the 2004 Boston Red Sox came storming back against the New York Yankees in the ALCS and would end the year winning eight in a row after sweeping the Cardinals in the World Series.
“If there’s a guy on our staff that we know gives us a good chance to go out there and get us back in the series, it’s (Flaherty),” third baseman Matt Carpenter said Saturday. “He’s strong enough mentally to handle an opportunity, a situation like that. He’s obviously got electric stuff. He’s been great for us all year especially in the second half, so I’m not worried about that at all.
“We saw what we were able to do in game five in Atlanta, so hopefully we can get a big inning here soon and that jump starts us. We got our guy on the mound first game back over there so we’re expecting Jack to be good and just right back to it.”
At just 23 years old, Flaherty may not fit the typical mold of a staff ace, but he displays leadership and commands his temperament well beyond his years. Other pitchers on the staff, some older than him, have spoken consistently about the role he takes in helping them through difficult situations.
His numbers speak for themselves, and his presence is forceful.
After Adam Wainwright took the loss in a gutty performance against Atlanta, Flaherty stood quietly by as Wainwright answered questions from the media for nearly 15 minutes. He moved in for an embrace as the session wrapped up, and the message was clear – the team would pick Wainwright up.
“It’s not the norm, but Jack’s not a normal talent,” Shildt explained Sunday. “He’s got a lot of different skill sets that allow him to get to a point where he’s earned — and that’s exactly what’s happened — he’s earned the opportunity to head our staff, which is saying something with the staff we have.”
Washington’s Stephen Strasburg will oppose Flaherty, and their early career paths stand in contrast to each other. Where the Cardinals have brought Flaherty along to this moment, the Nationals were intentional about shutting Strasburg down in the 2012 postseason. Where Flaherty has risen to stand out among his peers, Strasburg is one of a hydra of pitching talent with Max Scherzer in control.
Where Strasburg’s team has seized the series, Flaherty’s is still seeking to get started.
“This series is far from over,” Shildt said. “And we have a guy going that’s one of the best guys and really the best guy in baseball second half undisputed going for us on Monday. I’m very optimistic still about this series.”
For that optimism to be rewarded, only Flaherty can and must deliver.