Any interest in a positive angle from a lopsided loss to a struggling team?
Soft-tossing Nationals starter Anibal Sanchez handcuffing a Cardinals lineup wasn’t the only Monday occurrence that stirred some memories from 2019.
Jack Flaherty smiled.
Did you see it?
The right-hander met catcher Yadier Molina just off the mound after a CJ Abrams lineout ended the fourth inning.
After back-to-back singles and a sacrifice bunt put Nationals on second and third with just one out, Flaherty had encountered a tight spot with his team trailing by a run.
He then fell behind Josh Palacios two balls to none.
What followed: slider for a called strike; four consecutive Palacios foul balls; and then Flaherty firing a 96.6 mph fastball by a swinging Palacios for a swing-and-miss strike three.
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That’s when Molina made his mound visit. Abrams lined out to Lars Nootbaar three pitches later. Inning over. Flaherty and Molina flashed quick grins.
Perfect, it was not. More efficient, it could have been. But Monday marked another step forward for Flaherty, who continues to provide reasons to believe what has at times looked like a lost season due to more shoulder trouble could end with him becoming a postseason X-factor for the Cardinals.
“Frustrating, but there has been growth,” manager Oliver Marmol said pregame about Flaherty’s year. “Not just in the physical sense of pitching but in the preparation and the mentality of how he’s approaching it. Being injured sucks. Especially when you are an ultra-competitor and you know that, ‘When I’m healthy we are better.’ And when you have a hard time getting healthy, the frustration builds. So there has been a good bit of growth in his overall development and mentality. He’s approaching it from a team aspect. This isn’t about Jack. He knows: ‘Man, if I get healthy, I can help the club.’”
Flaherty could have potentially gone six or even seven innings if his swing-and-miss stuff was present (it was) and if he was working as efficiently as Marmol hoped (not quite). But he successfully delivered five innings — four of which were scoreless — while allowing just one run in his first start back from his latest rehab tour. He struck out six and walked one.
Sanchez’s five scoreless innings included just two Cardinals hits and caused unpleasant flashbacks of his near no-hitter against the Cardinals in the 2019 National League Championship Series that set the stage for Washington’s sweep and World Series surge.
Flaherty hinted at a 2019 topic, too.
You remember Flaherty in 2019. Then 23 years old and free and clear from shoulder baggage, he did his best Bob Gibson impression in a historically impressive second half (0.91 ERA).
I bring it up because the Cardinals are quietly bringing it up internally.
Some of the stuff Flaherty is doing now looks like some of the stuff he was doing back then.
Sixteen of Flaherty’s 91 pitches on Monday reached 95 mph or faster. Five hit 96-plus. Against old friend Luke Voit in the first inning, Flaherty fired a four-seamer at 97.1 mph. It was the fastest pitch he had thrown in the majors since May of 2021.
“Yeah, he decided to throw 97 to me,” Voit deadpanned from the visitors’ clubhouse after grounding out, striking out and flying out against Flaherty. “I was talking to Yadi about it in my at-bat. Of course Jack saves his 97 for me. And he kept his slider on the black or a little off the plate to not give me enough barrel on it. He looked good.”
Flaherty worked all of his pitches but leaned on his four-seamer (52.7%), his slider (27.5%) and his curve (12%) the most. He worked his heat up high in the zone and kept his arm angle and release point consistent, which increases the effectiveness of his off-speed pitches.
The second hitter he faced, Luis Garcia, went from ahead 2-0 to striking out on a pitch so deceptive it wound up in the dirt, close to his back heel. It was the first of Flaherty’s six strikeouts. Flaherty had six strikeouts combined through the three June starts he made during a brief return from the injured list. None of those starts, limited first for pitch count and later by ineffectiveness, went longer than three innings.
There’s a reason the Nationals were scouting video from Flaherty’s most recent rehab starts entering Monday’s game instead of those June starts. He’s pitching differently now. More like signature Jack.
“Just more comfortable working with my stuff, the way everything was on time, how I was able to make adjustments,” said Flaherty. “I don’t think I was able to last time, from pitch to pitch. I was frustrated.”
Flaherty’s 91 pitches Monday included 14 called strikes and 14 swings and misses. Four of the six hits he allowed were singles. The only extra-base hit that hurt him came against old friend Lane Thomas, who smacked a third-inning ground-rule double that sent the Nationals toward what later became a 6-0 win. Thomas was the only thorn in Flaherty’s side. He also walked once and wore a pitch on his sleeve. The outfielder the Cardinals last season traded for Jon Lester continues to take advantage of increased playing time with his new club.
“I hit a pretty good pitch,” Thomas observed.
This season has been a frustrating one for Flaherty. The clouds over him at times have felt as real as the ones suspended over Busch Stadium on Labor Day. The sun broke through Monday, even in a loss.
“It looks like his shoulder is all right if he’s throwing 97 again,” Voit said.