Cheap Seats

Carlos Martinez is a great talent, but hasn’t assumed role of St. Louis Cardinals ace

It’s great that the St. Louis Cardinals were able to stave off, at least for one day, the plans of the Chicago Cubs to celebrate a National League Central championship at Busch Stadium.

But the way the Redbirds played Tuesday ought to add at least one entry to the team’s offseason shopping list.

I love Carlos Martinez’s talent and his larger-than-life personality. But despite his long-term contract and an appearance as a All-Star, I just wonder whether he has the composure to be the leader of the St. Louis rotation. He doesn’t seem ready, at least yet, to be the go-to guy in big games. This team that needs one middle-of-the-order hitter, maybe two, and a top-of-the-rotation starter if it wants to be a playoff contender.

St. Louis staked the guy who is supposed to be its ace — the guy its leadership wants on the mound in its biggest games — to a five-run lead in a contest so important that it might as well have been a playoff game. Martinez was unable to pitch through five innings to even qualify to get a win. He was in trouble in four of the five innings and was fortunate to leave with only three runs allowed. Especially after he loaded the bases, got the hitter at the plate to an 0-2 count, and then proceeded to walk in an important run.

That episode caused me to post on Twitter that maybe fans wouldn’t care so much that Martinez died his hair purple if he didn’t suddenly fall apart via self-inflicted damage in big games.

Some responded. “Here goes someone griping about Martinez’s hair color again.” But that was really about 180 degrees off the point. I, nor anyone else who roots for the Cardinals, wouldn’t care if he died his hair purple, had it chromed or shaved it in the fashion of a bulls-eye — if he pitched like he’s capable.

At one point, Martinez had allowed seven baserunners in two innings. Then, suddenly, as if someone flipped a switch, he managed to work out of the fourth by bearing down and getting a couple of key strikeouts. He’s capable of pitching like that all the time. But he either loses focus or gets too worked up and his loss of composure is often the difference between domination or being dominated. I’d blame it on the fact that catcher Yadier Molina wasn’t behind the plate to reign in Martinez’s emotions. But that didn’t help when Carlos blew up a week and a half ago in Chicago.

Think of the line in “Bull Durham” in which Crash Davis tells his young protege that if he wins 20 games in the major leagues, he can let the fungus grow on his shower shoes as much as he wants and people will think he’s “colorful.” But until then, his sloppy shoes just make him a slob.

Likewise, if Martinez was 18-6 or something similar, no one would talk about his hair. But when he’s got Juan Marichal stuff and a Mike Leake record, that sort of makes people wonder why he can’t harness his talent. Too many off-the-field distractions is the obvious candidate.

With his talent but seeming immaturity, it appears that Martinez isn’t ready to graduate from apprentice to Adam Wainwright to leader of the pack. He’s made great strides the last couple of seasons. I hope he can make that last step. But while stat-obsessed fans will cherry-pick the numbers to prove he’s a top-five starter in the NL and claim that wins are an insignificant measuring stick, I’d say that they carry added weight when your supposed ace can’t make it deep into his last two starts against the Cubs to even be eligible to earn a win.

The Cardinals seem certain to shed the contract of Lance Lynn this winter. That leaves them with Martinez, what’s left of Wainwright, which doesn’t appear to be much, injury-prone Michael Wacha and two kids from the group of Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson. I don’t know who from that group the Cardinals would want to turn to in a deciding game of a playoffs series. Those kids might turn out to be studs. But it’s probably going to take a year or two.

Speaking of the Cubs and pitching, I have grown entirely tired of seeing the Chicago players impose their will on their St. Louis counterparts without so much us putting up a fight.

For the last two years, the Cubs’ hurlers have been pelting Cardinals hitters with pitches. Meanwhile, their batters, especially Anthony Rizzo, stand on the plate and dare the Redbirds to throw anything on the inside half.

It’s no wonder the Birds have an embarrassing record against the North Siders. If one team hits another team’s batters and the receiving team doesn’t stand up for itself, why would anyone think the situation is going to change. I’m not saying that I want to see anyone injured. But I am saying that when Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler and Jose Martinez are being turned into human pin cushions, someone wearing blue needs to take one in the ribs. If for no other reason than to say, “I know what you’re trying to do and I’m not going to let you get away with it.”

This St. Louis team is so far away from sound, fundamental baseball. It can’t run the bases, it can’t hit and run or otherwise move base runners up, it continually falls prey to defensive shifts, and it doesn’t even stand up for itself when it’s bullied. Where is our Leader of Men when we need him.