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Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty makes adjustments; his postseason role could change, too

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Cardinals kick off last home series against Pittsburgh Pirates

Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty goes to work in the second inning of a against the Pirates on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, at Busch Stadium.

Albert Pujols didn’t stop at 700. On a night when he was honored before the game for the momentous homers (699 and 700) he had hit the Friday before in Los Angeles, he decided to launch No. 701.

It was his 16th homer since the All-Star break which he spent, in part, by winning a round in the Home Run Derby in Dodger Stadium So, for the past two months, some things haven't changed.  Pujols for the past 70 days, is the same fearsome slugger people saw for 11 seasons here.

.But, as the Cardinals gear up for next week’s playoffs, some other things might change.

Jack Flaherty worked six innings, tying his season high, and allowed one run and four hits while striking out six and throwing 95 pitches in a 2-1 win over Pittsburgh at Busch Stadium. This certainly has vaulted him into consideration for a starting spot in the best-of-three playoff series with an undetermined opponent. But it also could put him in a position as an early-to-middle-innings reliever to try to give an opponent's lineup a different look the second or third time through.

“I can see that,” said manager Oliver Marmol, who pulled out a sheath of papers from his desk and noted he and his staff had spent an hour discussing possibilities Friday afternoon.  “I’ve got every matchup possible here. It’s just nonsense, everywhere, right?

“But the reality is that I still don’t know. I wanted to see tonight. And I want to see Sunday (when Adam Wainwright starts) And I want to see what (Saturday) looks like.”

Left-hander Jordan Montgomery, outstanding for most of his starts here after coming from the New York Yankees but not quite as effective lately, will be the Cardinals’ starter Saturday. “At some point over the weekend, it will settle, where if it goes south, then I’m OK with it going south in that way,” Marmol said.

Flaherty, 2-1 in September after coming off the injured list, said,  “Whenever they give me the ball, they give me the ball."  

With a couple of extra days’ rest this wasn’t the same Flaherty, who threw 97 miles per hour at times in his last start and featured a sharp slider. The velocity was down a couple of ticks on Friday. The slider, not quite as effective, gave way to his knuckle curve on which Flaherty was getting swings and misses.

The slider wasn’t bad but Flaherty said catcher Yadier Molina kept calling for the curveball, mostly against left-handed hitters, and Flaherty was only too happy to comply.

“Kind of surprised them with it,” he said.

“It was kind of a different game,” he said. “It just goes to show there are other ways to get guys out.

“It wasn’t quite the same jump on the fastball as it was before. It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying to. But you work with what you’ve got.”

Marmol, assessing Flaherty’s night, said, “Obviously, you want him to just cruise through but you’re hoping for some traffic and see how he works out of it — and his overall demeanor and poise.”

Flaherty worked out of a bases-loaded, one-out spot in the second and a two-on, two-out jam in the third.

“You’re wanting to see … how he navigates it, and he did well,” said Marmol, who probably will start Flaherty on Wednesday in Pittsburgh but may not use him for long.

The defense the sellout crowd saw in the ninth inning Friday might be the very defense that would be behind closer Ryan Helsley a week from now. Paul DeJong was at shortstop. Ben DeLuzio was in center field. Marmol said he had thought of putting DeLuzio in the game in the seventh but wanted Juan Yepez, who started in the outfield, to take one more at-bat.

“We’ll wait till we have the lead to go straight defense rather than tie game,” said Marmol.

The risk in what Marmol did — and might do — is take leadoff man and second baseman Brendan Donovan out of the game, a strategy which backfires if the opposition ties the game or goes ahead in the top of the ninth. “That’s just the way it goes, at that point,” Marmol said.

It didn’t happen.

Pujols ripped a 1-2 Johan Oviedo slider into Big Mac Land to open the fourth inning, meaning, of course, that all fans in that section will get a free Big Mac sandwich.

The homer was Pujols’ 501st of his career against a right-hander and off a record 456th different pitcher. As often has been the case lately, a Pujols homer either put his team ahead or, in this instance, tied the game at 1-1.

It was Pujols’ 22nd homer of the season and ninth against a right-hander. Seven of Pujols’ past 10 homers either have put the Cardinals ahead or tied the game. And there was the requisite standing ovation.

“It was pretty awesome to just get back in (St. Louis),” said Pujols. “I knew it was going to be like this. It's just pretty good to be able to be embraced by the fans like this. This is what I've getting all year long, but today was extra special, especially after reaching the milestone of 700. It was just a great night overall. A night that I shared with my teammates, my family — they were in the stands. And. obviously to come out with a huge win."

The Cardinals are 16-1 when Pujols homers and Flaherty has received Pujols homers in three of his past four starts.

Most of the action, however came on the defensive end.

Flaherty was abetted in the sixth by a leaping catch in right from Lars Nootbaar, who pulled in Ben Gamel’s drive near the wall.

Andre Pallante allowed two of the first three batters he faced to reach base in the seventh, Giovanny Gallegos closed out that inning, only to allow two runners himself in the eighth. Reenter Nootbaar.

With two out, pinch hitter Cal Mitchell sent a foul fly toward the box seats down the first-base line. Second baseman Donovan and Nootbaar both gave chase, with Donovan leaping and missing on his attempt before bumping into Nootbaar, who made the grab for the final out of the inning as both players tumbled into the protective netting. Their legs were sticking straight up.

“Neither one of us called it so we both kind of jumped and ran into each other,” said Donovan.

“It was fun. I feel bad for the people when we landed in their laps. They helped us up. Lars and I just leaned back into the net and started laughing.”

 The netting was put in a few years ago to protect the fans but it also protects the players. There were two plays made late in the game on Friday that might not have been made, or made at the risk of serious injury, had there been no net.

“Those seats hurt,” said Donovan.

”The net just gives you a chance to just go after the ball. Thank goodness for that.”

Helsley wrapped up his 19th save in the ninth as first baseman Paul Goldschmidt dived over the Post-Dispatch tarp to snag Miguel Andujar's foul pop-up before he also crashed into the netting as he ended the game.

If the net were not there, Goldschmidt said, “I might pay for it a little more. I think the net definitely adds some protection. That’s an added benefit (to the players) they maybe weren’t planning on.”

Marmol, who operates at the other end of the dugout, couldn’t see either catch, what with his players standing up to observe. When Goldschmidt made his play, Marmol said, “I was just looking ahead waiting for people to cheer loudly. And once they did I knew the game was over.

“I’m glad the netting’s there.”

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Rick Hummel is a Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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