PITTSBURGH — The Cardinals are reluctant to offer many details about how Jack Flaherty, one month removed from the injured list and three years separated from being one of the most dominant starters in the league, factors into their pitching stratagem for the postseason.
He will be ready for it after an impressive finish to the season that included a scoreless inning of relief Tuesday night. He will have a prominent spot in it as the Cardinals host Philadelphia for a best-of-three series. But beyond that, his role is TBA, when he’ll appear is TBD and both are FAQ.
Which might be the biggest hint of all.
He could be a frequent answer.
“He has a chance to pitch some valuable innings for us moving forward and help us reach our ultimate goal of bringing the World Series back,” manager Oliver Marmol said late Tuesday night. “They will be meaningful. I trust him. I do. I think there are certain guys when things are on a line who have another gear that they go to mentally that some others can’t. I trust Jack.”
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The game Tuesday night bent favorably before closer Ryan Helsley’s finger did awkwardly. The Cardinals wanted to get Flaherty one inning of work in relief, and Marmol cautioned against reading Flaherty’s run from the bullpen as an “audition.” Rather, it was a statement. Immediately before the right-hander entered, the Cardinals rallied to tie the game 7-7. Instead of Flaherty and Helsley appearing in back-to-back innings of another meandering loss along the Allegheny River, the Cardinals had a ballgame, a bona fide high-leverage spot for two pitchers they want in those spots starting this weekend.
Flaherty gave them a grin.
Helsley gave them a gulp.
After the fifth pitch of his appearance was lined back at him, Helsley came off the mound and stumbled. He placed his right hand on the ground to regain his balance and jammed his middle finger into the dirt. The finger started to stiffen up to a point that he could not comfortably apply pressure to the baseball. That left his off-speed pitches adrift. Helsley, wearing a small, protective sleeve on the finger after the game, said it remained stiff an hour later and that overnight would be the test of how inflexible the finger became.
“I don’t think anything is super-wrong,” Helsley said. “Err on the side of caution.”
Helsley did not have any scans taken of the finger at the ballpark, nor was he scheduled to go for X-rays later in the evening, he said. The initial fear that he had a leg injury, such as a hamstring issue, vanished for the Cardinals when the trainer and manager reached the mound. Postgame, Marmol said he received an encouraging report from the medical staff that they weren’t “super-concerned about it.” Helsley was scripted to appear in a single inning Tuesday and then have two days off before Friday’s opener of the wild-card series.
San Diego won late Tuesday to clinch the second wild-card berth into the National League playoffs, cementing Philadelphia’s long-awaited rematch with the Cardinals. The last time the Phillies were in the playoffs was the night the Cardinals eliminated them with Chris Carpenter’s 1-0 masterpiece — in October 2011.
The anniversary of that game is Friday, the day the next series starts.
Several of the choices the Cardinals have to make about their rotation and how they’ll stock the bullpen depend on the opponent.
Flaherty’s place in either first depended on his health.
Once he established that, Marmol believed a familiar Flaherty would emerge.
Reliever Chris Stratton, the winner in Tuesday’s 8-7 victory in 10 innings against the Pirates, said he’s been complimenting Flaherty since he arrived via trade in August, telling the right-hander what the Cardinals are about to show with their playoff plan.
“Any time Jack throws, he’s got a chance to do something special,” Stratton said. “I think he’s a special, special, special talent. He’s got a great chance to get a lot of important outs.”
The Cardinals had three pitchers they wanted to get into Tuesday’s game after it went sideways on starter Dakota Hudson. The script called for Flaherty to get one inning (regardless of score), Helsley one inning (regardless of score), and there was an assignment ideal for rookie Zack Thompson that, if possible, would pit him against Pirates rookie and left-handed hitter Oneil Cruz. What had been a four-run deficit because of the seven Pittsburgh hung on Hudson turned suddenly into the ideal setup for the Cardinals’ plans.
While Flaherty was warming up, the Cardinals rallied to tie the game 7-7. He would get a late-game, high-leverage assignment to keep it there. Even when Helsley had to leave the eighth inning early, that thrust Thompson into the game with a chance to show the Cardinals how he could get ready quickly, under duress, and then, yes, face the left-handed batter. Thompson sped through his inning.
Stratton inherited a tie game and extra innings to navigate.
“Which was awesome,” Marmol said.
Flaherty got to shift from going in to get work, to get ready, to stay sharp for whenever he next appeared to having a tight game to hold — and possibly win.
He borrowed from his experience.
“As a starter, (the) goal is to get in, throw strikes, get ahead, put up a zero,” Flaherty said. “No different than coming out as a starter trying to put up a shutdown inning after we put up some runs.”
The first batter he faced singled. The next chopped a slider into a double play groundout. And the third, No. 8 hitter Tyler Heineman, missed on an elevated 2-2 fastball. Flaherty touched 96 mph with the pitch. His last pitch was his fastest pitch of the outing and it finished the 600th strikeout of his career. It was the only swing and miss he got in the game, but he saw the expected uptick in velocity and 12 of his 19 pitches got swings. Only two put balls in play. The ground out was the hardest one hit.
That scoreless inning was a fitting punctuation to the final few outings for Flaherty, who eased back from shoulder issues to close the regular season with a series of compelling innings.
He struck out 16 in his final 13 innings.
“He could definitely be a force for us out there,” Helsley said.
The Cardinals have worked through scenarios where they have a left-hander start a game against the Phillies with Flaherty lurking as the right-hander into the game when the lineup flips back around. Giovanny Gallegos from the right and Steven Matz from the left would then become the bridges to Helsley in the eighth or ninth. The idea — as it always is in the postseason — is to minimize poor matchups, maximize a bullpen’s elasticity, and aggressively shorten games. With what they’ve seen recently from Flaherty, they see him as being a contributor in a variety of spots. Marmol said Flaherty has “one inning of pretty good firepower” or “he can give you multiples.” Flaherty adds to the bullpen’s “decent flexibility,” the manager said.
But not much more.
There’s an opponent listening these days.
And now they know who.
Asked if Flaherty’s role could be like an “X-factor,” Marmol leaned back in his chair.
“Absolutely,” Marmol said. “I’m totally OK with that.”