ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) — So… Is Carlos Martinez back?
He hadn’t really gone anywhere, of course. The 29-year-old right-hander has been a consistent presence with the Cardinals since the Redbirds first called him up as a reliever in 2013. But where Martinez buttered his bread from 2015 through early-2018 was in the St. Louis starting rotation, where he performed as one of the National League’s most consistently effective starters.
That’s the version of Carlos Martinez the Cardinals have been missing ever since. After Martinez returned from a stint on the injured list later in the 2018 season, Martinez was relegated to the bullpen. The relief role seemed to suit him, but the Cardinals didn’t sign Martinez to a $51 million contract extension ahead of the 2017 campaign to watch him deliver in one-inning stints. Martinez never wavered in his desire to return to the rotation, but when he finally got the opportunity last season, he fumbled it amid a COVID-19 diagnosis and a subsequent oblique injury that ended his year with an ERA that only narrowly finished below 10.00.
With two straight throwback performances for the rejuvenated Cardinals hurler, the winds are swirling—Martinez told reporters after his start that he thinks “the Tsunami is coming again.”
“That’s so beautiful,” Mike Shildt smiled when he got wind of Martinez’s message to the media. “I don’t know how to respond to that. I think we’ve seen—It’s been on the horizon. And it’s coming to shore. Last outing was fantastic and definitely made some in-land waves tonight, if you want to stay with that analogy. Really good again.”
Martinez earned a win as a starter Tuesday for the first time since July, 2018. He recorded an out in the eighth inning, as a starter, for the first time since May 2, 2018. It was an evening of milestones for a pitcher who had a long way back to the rotation after his previous dominance there.
The outing was also notable in that it signified the start of a possible upward trend for Martinez. Though he didn’t get the win in his start last week against the Nationals, that’s only because the Cardinals didn’t score a single run to support him. St. Louis lost 1-0 on a day where Martinez fired six innings of one-run baseball, honing the same steady demeanor that he displayed in Tuesday’s win.
“(He was) attacking the hitters and executing every single pitch one at a time,” Andrew Knizner said on what Martinez successful Tuesday. “There were a couple times where he got behind in a couple of counts and he was able to come back in, make good pitches and get some weak contact… That shows you right there where he wants to be as far as the mental side, being able to bounce back in the zone and get those outs.”
A storyline for Martinez in the past has been his tendency to allow minor setbacks to snowball into avalanche innings. The arm talent, the repertoire, the stuff has never been a question. His ability to maximize those tools before allowing jams to turn into crooked numbers, though, hasn’t been as consistent.
The fourth inning Tuesday presented the kind of scenario that could have developed into a similar disappointing narrative for Martinez. J.T. Realmuto reached base to lead off the inning on an error by Justin Williams, with the Phillies catcher winding up at second base. Martinez exacerbated the initial error with one of his own, sailing a pick-off attempt into center field to allow Realmuto to take third.
Two errors in an inning—one by your own hand—can be a tough circumstance for a pitcher. The prophecy seemed to be fulfilling itself when Martinez started off the next batter, Didi Gregorius, with three straight balls to ratchet up the tension of the moment.
But Carlos bounced back. He bore down on Gregorius, eliciting three straight foul balls before inducing a ground ball out. Though the ball in play allowed the unearned run to score, it was an important out in that it cleared the bases—and the slate—for Martinez in the inning.
“He’s got the reset button going,” Shildt said. “Didn’t make a play… It didn’t work, but I like the aggressiveness. Then he reset the trap. Was able to make pitches. Didn’t make it bigger than it was and held them right there. He was tremendous tonight.”
Gregorius would mark the beginning of a stretch of 13 in a row set down by Martinez, a streak broken by a walk to Matt Joyce in the eighth. Shildt determined that was the time to turn to his well-rested bullpen, spelling Martinez with Giovanny Gallegos and Alex Reyes to secure the win for St. Louis.
One interesting element of Martinez’s recent success has been his curiously low strikeout numbers. He punched out four batters Tuesday after just three in his previous outing. Seven Ks across 13.1 innings isn’t a typical rate for Martinez, but it’s a product of the mindset that has allowed him to thrive in the first place: Stay in the strike zone. Simplify everything.
Of course, when you have a defense behind you littered with Gold Glove winners and future candidates for the award, pitching to weak contact—or any contact, really—is a recommended strategy. Nolan Arenado proved the hypothesis with a circus catch on a Bryce Harper pop foul in the third inning. The eight-time Gold Glover sprinted 91 feet from his spot on the shifted Cardinals infield, hauling in a sliding over-the-shoulder web gem with his back to the infield to end the inning.
— Brenden Schaeffer (@bschaeffer12) April 28, 2021
Knowing that Harper is one tough customer at the plate, Martinez was thrilled as he watched Arenado retire the Phillies slugger to end the inning, saying it motivated him to continue his strong effort on the mound.
“That made me wake up,” Martinez said of Arenado’s latest caper. “Like, ‘Keep going. Keep pitching.’”
Martinez did exactly that, putting his stamp on a rotation role that he once dominated—and seeks to command once more in 2021.
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