NEW YORK — There will be the usual assortment of critics, piping in on social media and elsewhere, irate about St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny letting his best starting pitcher, Carlos Martinez, return for the sixth inning Saturday despite having thrown more than 100 pitches through five arm-straining innings.
That it didn’t work, that the Yankees piled two more runs on that inning to practically salt away their 3-2 win, will only add a dash of kerosene to the discussion.
But it should be noted that the last pitcher to do something as simultaneously brilliant and baffling as what Martinez accomplished — striking out 11 batters and walking eight — was Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, who needed 158 pitches to get through a 1993 game. That seemed to work out pretty well in the long run. Johnson kept winning Cy Youngs well into his 30s.
It is fair, of course, to question the wisdom of letting a key pitcher extend himself in just his third start of the season. The last Cardinals pitcher to throw at least 118 pitches in six innings or fewer was Lance Lynn on May 12, 2015. That one didn’t work out so well. Lynn had Tommy John surgery that November.
But Martinez said he feels great, and that he was ready to go nine innings if his manager would have let him. The Cardinals have been generally conservative with their pitchers’ workloads over the length of a season. It’s also a measure of how borderline-desperate the Cardinals are getting for wins, having lost eight of their first 11 games.
Matheny said he sent Martinez out for the sixth inning because he was the team’s best option to get outs, something of a commentary on a bullpen that has been among the team’s biggest worries so far.
“I’m not out there just dreaming that it’s going to be effective. When he found the plate, he was effective,” Matheny said of Martinez. “Once he got into a better roll… He just had trouble finding his timing, whether it was his front-foot contact or whatever it was, he was having trouble finding his release point early. The further he went, the better he got.”
Martinez walked four batters in the first inning and struck out three. He walked two more in the second and, again, struck out the side. The amazing part is that, despite his wildness, the Yankees could make practically no contact. He wanted to throw sinkers because Yankee Stadium is such an easy stadium to hit home runs in, but he had trouble getting his sinker into the bottom part of the strike zone. Eventually, he just started throwing four-seam fastballs as hard as he could. That worked better for a time.
“It’s just a testament to how good his stuff is to have all those base runners and only allow one run,” Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia noted.
Through all that traffic, the Yankees managed just one run until a familiar Cardinals bugaboo, less-than-crisp defense, surfaced in the sixth. Aledmys Diaz and Randal Grichuk lost a ball in the gray sky and it landed in shallow left field for a Ronald Torreyes double. Martinez got a comebacker from Aaron Hicks and threw it over Yadier Molina’s head. Had he taken time to set his feet before the throw, he thinks he would have thrown Hicks out.
At times, Cardinals starting pitching has been dominant. At times, it has been poor. At times, like Saturday, it was been both at once.
At no time has the team’s defense or hitting been consistently effective so far. Leadoff man Dexter Fowler is batting .136 and spent time after Saturday’s game looking at video with hitting coach John Mabry. Fowler has more strikeouts (14) than times on base (10). So do Grichuk, Matt Adams and Jhonny Peralta.
“We’ve got plenty of baseball left to go. We have to do a better job trying to get on base and trying to catch the ball better,” Molina said. “It surprises me, but it’s baseball. It’s better for those things to happen now than to happen later.”