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St. Louis Cardinals take on the Miami Marlins at Busch

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez throws during the June 19 game against the Miami Marlins at Busch Stadium. Photo by Brian Munoz, bmunoz@post-dispatch.com

SEATTLE — There was a time in his career when Carlos Martinez, lightning bolts at his fingertips and faith in that spring-loaded shoulder, would rely on velocity to race from trouble. If an inning got hard, he would throw harder. When things got harder, he threw his hardest.

Experience has taught him a different response.

He slows down.

“Take a little breath,” Martinez said this past week at his locker. “I would try to throw hard and be crazy and something would happen weird. If I lose my focus now and want to throw hard, I take a moment. I take a breath. I never lose my focus quickly, like sometimes before. Right now, I feel comfortable. I feel … ready.”

As the Cardinals rallied Sunday against San Diego to score five unanswered runs and end a five-game losing streak, Martinez got his first use in his current role: Cardinals closer, with a caveat. There have been few save opportunities in recent weeks, so Martinez entered a tie game with the go-ahead run on base in the eighth inning and responded with a season-high four strikeouts in a season-high 2 2/3 innings of work. When Matt Wieters connected for a two-run homer in the 11th inning, Martinez got the win in a 5-3 victory against the Padres. Manager Mike Shildt called Martinez’s extended use an “unusual circumstance” in “an unusual game.”

Though, the club hopes what he did becomes the usual.

“He knows what the situation calls for,” Shildt said. “He knows how to pitch. He’s got a high baseball I.Q., and it’s growing.”

The Cardinals concluded June about where they started – resolutely mediocre. A 13-13 month has left them with a 41-41 record as they make a rare visit this week to Seattle and inch closer to the All-Star break. They gained no ground in the National League Central, and they lost none. The Cardinals’ 13-13 record tied with Milwaukee for the division’s best. The other three teams, including the 14-15 Cubs, had losing records. The Cardinals scored a meager 92 runs in the month, spoiling some of the better pitching they’ve received this season, and while Major League Baseball saw a record 1,142 home runs hit in the month, Wieters’ winner Sunday was the Cardinals’ 26th. No team in the division had fewer.

In the last week of the month, the Cardinals had their most significant losses – as injuries claimed the player leading the club in homers, RBIs, slugging, OPS, and the pitcher leading the club in saves. Cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna could miss at least three weeks with fractures in his right fingers, and Jordan Hicks will miss the remainder of the year after elbow surgery. The Cardinals leave June with more questions than answers, with the exception of how they’ll handle Hicks’ absence from the ninth. They’re turning to Martinez, the once and future starter.

“I think I can be great,” he said.

Martinez had a cameo at closer in September and collected five saves. His hope – and the club’s – was that he could return to the rotation this season, but his right shoulder did not respond during rehab to a starter’s regimen. This past week, Martinez described how he once would have pressed through the fatigue and soreness, and he thinks that’s where the trouble with his shoulder began. At times it got hard to throw, so he tried harder, and did not share that his arm was tired, that his pitches felt soggy, not snappy.

That was a lesson learned, he said, and a lesson applied already this season when he explained his hesitance to unleash in bullpen sessions and his concern about starting.

“Years ago, I didn’t listen to my body. I didn’t listen to my arm. Now I do,” Martinez said. “By being smart. Don’t be crazy. When I’m tired I need to let them know because that’s when I got hurt. I was a little bit tired and I didn’t talk to anybody. I didn’t say, ‘I’m tired.’ I wanted to compete. I wanted to compete and I want to compete. But that happened.”

The shift to relief gave the Cardinals a way to utilize Martinez and get some value from his starter-level salary, and now the chance to close gives Martinez the prominent role he’s sought. He’s one full season removed from a three-year run as one of the best starters in the National League – he was 42-27 with a 3.24 ERA from 2015-2017 – and since 2015 only two Cardinals have been selected twice for an All-Star Game. Martinez went in 2015 and 2017, each time with catcher Yadier Molina.

As Martinez made his way back from injury and into the bullpen this season, Shildt described how the righthander was adjusting how he pitched, learning not to rely on horsepower his arm may no longer have, at least not as consistently.

Asked how that made him a different pitcher, Martinez paused.

“I’m smarter. I’m more mature,” he eventually said. “I think I’m better.”

A few hours later, on the mound in a tie game Sunday, he showed how, working with a bandwidth of pitches, as he did at his best as a starter. Martinez threw four pitches at 95 mph or faster to the first batter he faced and walked him to load the bases. The inning got hard. Martinez slowed down. He eased back on his next pitch for a 92.9-mph sinker and got a double-play groundout. In the ninth, to force extra innings, Martinez struck out the side, ending the inning with a 98.7-mph fastball.

Unleashed in short bursts, Martinez the reliever has seen his average velocity spike, going from 93.6 mph last season to 95.9 so far this season. His cutter is humming at 94.4 mph, up from 90.8 mph. His slider and changeup also have more giddy-up. His four strikeouts Sunday came on three different pitches, ranging from the 98.7-mph fastball to an 85.9-mph slider and an 88.7-mph changeup.

“That’s the art of pitching,” Shildt said. “Pitching to the disruption of timing. That’s what Carlos has an innate feel to do. He can sink it. He can grab it for a little more velocity. He’s got the slider. He’s got the changeup. He’s got all of the pitches to disrupt talent. He also knows when he’s trying to get a groundball, maybe trying to turn it over vs. I need a punchout.”

The Padres dinged Martinez for a single in the 10th that put the winning run at first. Martinez tested the next hitter, Ian Kinsler, with two fastballs. Kinsler missed one, fouled off the next one. Martinez took a breath. Slowed the moment down. He ended his outing with a slider that Kinsler took for a called strike. That was Martinez’s 41st pitch of the game, and Shildt said the extended outing was possible because of Monday’s off day on the eve of an interleague series against the Mariners and his limited use in the previous week. It was not a hint that the Cardinals could ready Martinez for the rotation.

Just an example of how he’ll handle the ninth – but not be limited to it.

“It is very important, a very important responsibility,” Martinez said. “And I like it. I like being closer. And I like being a starter. I like starting more, but right now, they need me in the bullpen. This is where I can help the team – from the bullpen. This is good for me.”

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Derrick Goold is the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.