The closer was the opener.
Before Saturday’s game, Jason Isringhausen was in the spotlight. They gave him a red jacket. A convertible ride around Busch. Even a press conference.
The Cardinals’ all-time saves leader is an authority on the topic of closing. And being a Cardinal Hall of Famer — and from Cardinal Country — Isringhausen was asked about the current Cardinals closer.
“He’s got some of the best stuff, you can just (look) across Major League Baseball,” Izzy said of Carlos Martinez. “His talent is unreal. It’s just that as a closer, I think you really have to work ahead in the count. Make them put the ball in play. Go in and try to pound the zone. … I think when Carlos gets in trouble, he doesn’t throw enough strikes. … Yes, there are times you walk somebody. Be smart about it. Yadi’s got him under control. Carlos has just good stuff – he just has to use it and not be afraid to let ‘er fly.”
The Cardinals’ closer is a Six Flags ride. And there are no height restrictions — all Cardinals fans experience the exhilaration and exasperation and exhaustion and ecstasy that is a Carlos Martinez ninth inning.
The good thing about the ride is it generally ends the same way — safe and with a save. For the season, Martinez has 15 saves and only three blown saves — and only one blown save since Jordan Hicks’ season ended with a June injury.
But since Martinez got his first save of the year on June 1, he appeared in 24 games — and in 19 of the 24, he allowed at least one baserunner. In 11 of the 24, he allowed more than one baserunner.
Such is life for the Cardinals and Carlos, who just like last year have found themselves in this arrangement. The one-time starter, whose body wasn’t ready to go in spring training, reduced to a reliever, albeit a really imperative one. It’s his job, and he’s getting the job done.
And really, if he struggles in the future, the only alternative is Giovanny Gallegos. That guy is fantastic. His WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is among the best in baseball. But putting Gallegos at closer would mean losing Gallegos as a reliable bridge to the ninth. The key to any good team is guys who maximize roles. And that’s what the Cards’ have in Gio and Carlos, who are kind of “The Odd Couple” of relievers — Gallegos (Felix) pitches clean and succinct and Martinez (Oscar) always seems to keep things interesting.
After a 1-0 count, hitters against Martinez have an on-base percentage of .491. But after an 0-1 count, hitters’ OBP against Martinez is .257.
“I think when you see him commanding the baseball, you can feel pretty good about what’s going on,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “It usually results in him getting ahead (in the count) or getting some kind of soft contact early in the count. When you see bigger misses or see him getting high in the count, you go: ‘Well, all right …’ But he’s got the ability to figure out and feel what he’s doing (wrong) really quickly. You stay with him based on his stuff and based on his competitiveness. But when he’s hitting his spots early in the count? Early when he comes in? There’s a little higher confidence level initially. But we’re always confident in him.”
The good thing about Martinez is the former starter has an arsenal. At his locker in the Cardinals clubhouse, he explained that he throws six different versions of pitches. Across the clubhouse, fellow reliever Tyler Webb gushed.
“He has so many pitches, and he gets it done with different pitches every day … that’s what impresses me the most,” Webb said. “You have some guys who have just have one pitch. (Mariano) Rivera had the cutter. It was that good. I think Carlos has — I don’t know how many pitches, five, six really good pitches? So it’s like, ‘Oh, the fastball isn’t really locating this day? I’ll just use the change-up and slider.’ He has so many weapons to go to, he has the luxury of not needing every one of those weapons every day. So that’s pretty cool to see.”
In 2019, there was supposed to be some summer symmetry — the Cardinals’ all-time saves leader enters the team’s Hall of Fame, one of the greatest Cardinals closers, Lee Smith, enters Cooperstown, and Hicks enters the pantheon of elite closers, firing flames faster than 100 miles per hour. But Hicks injured his elbow and won’t return until 2020.
As we’ve seen in Cardinal history, famed closers got the job in different ways — free agency, trade, promotion from Class-AAA, replacing a struggling closer — but they all kept it the same way. Save and you’ve saved your job for at least another chance.
“Since I was a kid, when I played baseball, I’ve got on my mind — always when I go on the field, I compete,” Martinez said. “I compete to win. I have fun when I have a lot of pressure. When I close the game, I try to have fun but respect the game and be focused, too. … (Baserunners) make me more focused — I need to take this hitter out. If I need a strikeout, I’m going to do it. Sometimes, if I need a groundball, I’m going to throw my best pitches for ground balls. That makes me work hard.”
And maybe the “Six Flags” closer can help the Cardinals get their 12th flag. First he’s got to help get them in the playoffs for the first time since 2015. It’ll be a heck of ride getting there.