The date was Sept. 15, 2020, the inning was the bottom of the fourth, and the situation was this: Jack Flaherty couldn’t get anybody out.
The Cardinals’ ace had already surrendered four runs to the Brewers through the first three innings, and now, with the race for a playoff spot in a dead heat, the romp was on. Milwaukee’s first five hitters of the frame reached base, ending Flaherty’s outing after seven runs had already scored. Four more would cross home plate before the third out (two charged to Flaherty); the then-24-year-old had set a new career high with nine runs allowed.
“You’re going to have games like that,” Flaherty said last week. “You’re going to have bad games where you get roughed up, but how do you bounce back from them? Being able to bounce back and come out and try to mentally get right after something like that definitely helps.”
How Flaherty bounced back was by fanning 11 hitters and winning his next start, which helped get the Cardinals into the postseason. St. Louis lost in three games against the Padres in the wild-card round, and though it was Flaherty who took the loss in the decisive game, his performance—six innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts in a 4–0 defeat—further cemented his status as the franchise’s pitching cornerstone for the foreseeable future.
Flaherty will take the mound on Opening Day for the Cardinals for the second straight year, this time in front of a Cincinnati crowd filled to 30% capacity. (Busch Stadium, in St. Louis, will allow 32% capacity to begin the year.) But aside from the excitement of starting a regular-season game in front of fans for the first time in over a year, Flaherty isn’t assigning any additional weight to his taking the mound for the opener.
“When you treat every start as important as I do,” Flaherty said. “Every single start is the biggest one you’re going to have that year.”
Flaherty’s so-so numbers from last season—a 4.91 ERA in nine starts—came as a result of a small sample size made even smaller by a lengthy stoppage in the Cardinals’ season because of COVID-19. Nearly a month passed between his first start (July 24) and his second (Aug. 19), and his rough outing in Milwaukee was the only one in which he allowed more than three runs. Acknowledging the cherry-picking nature of this exercise, removing that start from the equation lowers Flaherty’s season ERA to 3.13.
Now, he’ll headline a rotation that will rely on him more than ever, with starters Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim set to begin the season on the injured list. The pitching staff got a boost this offseason, though, when veteran stars Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina each re-signed with the club over a two-week span. Though Flaherty insists he did not put the full-court recruiting press on his longtime teammates, he’s nonetheless thrilled to have them back in the fold.
“It means everything to have them back. Those guys are the cornerstones of that locker room,” Flaherty said. “They hold that team together. Having their presence and their leadership around absolutely helps our team and makes us better… it’s been great having them as teammates and i’m looking forward to another run at it.”
Sandwiched in between Wainwright and Molina’s decisions was the Cardinals’ blockbuster trade for All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado, who will pair with first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to form perhaps the best duo of corner infielders in baseball. With those moves, the Cardinals went from just another team in a National League Central with no clear juggernaut to the prohibitive front runners.
Despite the bevy of 2021 projections available, how the division race plays out will begin in earnest when Flaherty toes the rubber at Great American Ball Park on April 1. Though it will be, in his view, the biggest start of the year, even a poor outing won’t be something to panic over. Rather, it would be a valuable learning opportunity—just like that ill-fated Milwaukee start six months ago.