This post was originally going to focus on which starting pitcher should be left off the Cardinals’ postseason rotation. It was going to be a tough exercise – choosing between five pitchers who are all very solid yet all fallible just the same. I hadn’t yet reached my conclusion, which is just as well because it would have been some variation of “I really have no idea,” but on Friday night the situation may have resolved itself when the just-turned 24-year old Carlos Martinez lasted only seven pitches in his start against the Brewers before leaving the game with shoulder tightness. On Saturday GM John Mozeliak confirmed that Martinez had a right shoulder sprain, and while it won’t require surgery, Martinez will be shut down for the rest of the season.
With this news, all of Cardinals Twitter and fans everywhere let out a simultaneous and resigned, “Damn.” We love Martinez, although we call him by his first name or “El Gallo,” a nickname coined by the popular Cardinals’ blog Viva El Birdos. Last year Carlos and Oscar Taveras, his best friend on the team, brought a brashness to a franchise that, other than Albert Pujols, has lacked a whole lot of “brash” since Ozzie Smith last stuck the landing on a back-flip. When Taveras died last October, it was well-documented how hard it was on Carlos. We all worried for him, which might explain why we seem to be so emotionally invested in him. When his name was later very loosely associated with trade talks involving Cole Hamels, we almost unanimously demanded that Carlos stay in St. Louis. I even wrote a post on it at the time.
Cardinals fans felt this way without really knowing what we had in him as a starting pitcher. We knew he threw hard and had the tools to cause the masses to speak in cliches (his “stuff” was often described as “filthy, “nasty” and/or “electric”). But he only threw 32.1 innings as a starter in 2014 and was less than remarkable in doing so, evidenced by a 4.45 ERA in those starts. He also had trouble in starts and in relief with left-handed batters, who slashed .289/.387/.462 against him (compared to .239/.308/.301 for righties).
So we liked Carlos’s personality and potential so much that we didn’t want to part with him despite signs that he couldn’t be a quality starting pitcher. Not anymore. This season he threw 179.2 innings (way more than he has ever thrown at any level) with a 3.01 ERA, 184 strikeouts, 3.23 FIP, and a 3.4 fWAR. He improved his pitching repertoire and his line vs. lefties (.257/.339/.417). His 2015 season ventured through normal peaks and valleys for a starting pitcher – he endured a pretty rough August – but he helped personify as much as anyone the 2015 Cardinals starting rotation: reliable and steady (and maybe a little lucky).
On September 15 vs. the Brewers he made the most athletic play I saw from anyone all year. With two men on and nobody out in the 6th inning of a 1-1 game, Elian Herrera bunted up the third base line. It seemed perfectly placed until Carlos fielded it and with his body falling into foul territory whipped the ball across his body to first to just barely snag Herrera. It seemed so impossible as it was unfolding that I believe this actually came out of my mouth: NOOOOOYESSSSSHOLYSH**CARLOS!
The Brewers did not score that inning and the Cardinals won the game 3-1 in 10 innings. Without that play, who knows.
After every solid outing Cardinals Twitter would flood timelines with the #VivaElGallo hashtag. When he isn’t pitching he’s a better cheerleader and more of a character than Fredbird. He feeds pigeons, stacks cups, is a man who wears many hats, and is always the last to receive a teammate who has just homered. He’ll be able to continue these antics on the bench but missing out on seeing him on the mound in October will be a shame.
His last full start was on Sunday, September 20 vs. the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Cubs knocked the Cardinals around in the first two games of the series, over the course of which you may have heard that several players got hit with a baseball. A sweep would have meant a razor-thin margin of error for the Cardinals over the final two weeks of the season since the Pittsburgh Pirates have unceremoniously decided to never lose again (and, because, as I type this, the Cardinals just left Trevor Rosenthal in too long in the 9th inning of the final series game vs. the Brewers and gift-wrapped the game for them). The game last Sunday in Chicago wasn’t the playoffs but it sure felt like it; an atmosphere few places outside of Wrigley Field could deliver for a regular-season game. If there was ever a time our fickle fan base would have forgiven one of our starting pitchers for being rattled by the moment it was this game. But Carlos wasn’t rattled. He pitched a strong 6 2/3 innings, and allowed only two runs on four hits. Two runs that probably should have never happened, but for Carlos getting squeezed by home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez on a pitch called a ball that was in the zone and should have ended the third inning. The Cubs would score their two runs later that inning but would not score again while Carlos was on the mound. To use the description from earlier, he was reliable and steady the rest of the way, and the Cardinals won the game 4-3. To date, it was the biggest win of their season – a possible season-saving win.
We won’t see Carlos on the mound again this year, which is the right move even if he’s feeling 100% after a few weeks of rest. There’s never a reason to take a chance with a pitcher’s throwing shoulder, especially a pitcher who has potential to be the centerpiece of the Cardinals rotation for the foreseeable future. And that’s the goal for Carlos right now – to be healthy and ready to pitch in 2016. We’ll miss him the rest of this year but we’re plenty thankful and proud for what he’s already given us.
Viva El Gallo.Next post: Joe Carter and the Worst 7 Points in MVP Voting
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