By Rob Rains
As Jack Flaherty took the mound for the Cardinals’ game in Los Angeles on May 31, 2021, there really was no special reason why that date would be significant.
It was another start in what to that point had been a great start to the season for Flaherty, who was pitching almost as well as he had in the last half of 2019 when he was one of the best starters in the game.
Flaherty went into that start against the Dodgers with an 8-1 record, a 2.84 ERA, establishing himself as a strong candidate to start the All-Star game for the National League.
The reason why the date stands out now to Flaherty, nearly two years later, is that he hasn’t pitched the same since.
While batting in the fifth inning, Flaherty suffered an oblique injury, which started a string of setbacks that continued for the rest of 2021 and almost all of last season.
Since that day, Flaherty has pitched a total of 52 1/3 innings for the Cardinals, spread across 12 starts. Over those two seasons, the Cardinals have played three playoff games, and lost all of them.
“I’ve watched three playoff losses and I haven’t pitched in any of them,” Flaherty said on Monday during his session with reporters on the third day of the Winter Warm-up.
“That doesn’t feel good to me. It sucks being there watching.”
The frustration was obvious. It’s time, Flaherty says, for it to end.
“It feels like a long time,” Flaherty said. “I’ve watched a lot of baseball and not played a lot. That’s frustrating for everybody. There’s no hiding behind the fact it sucked. It sucks when you don’t get to go out there and compete.”
Finally, however, Flaherty is happy with how he feels – physically and mentally – as he is just weeks away from reporting to Florida for the start of the biggest season of his career.
“I feel really good,” Flaherty said. “This year has been a lot of progress and making strides to get better.
“I’ve figured it out a little bit this year of what makes me me and carrying that out onto the mound, who I am and what I can do.”
Flaherty can become a free agent after this season, and he knows a big part of his future, whether it is in St. Louis or elsewhere, will be determined by how he pitches this season.
“For me it’s about just going out and competing and executing,” Flaherty said. “The main goal for this year is to go out and win, not just for me but for the team … I’m looking forward to this year. Whatever happens at the end of it, I just want to go out and compete and win. That’s all I’ve wanted to do since I’ve been here.
“We don’t play 162 games to get close to get to the playoffs. You don’t go through the off-season, spring training and everything just to get there. We’ve got there. Winning the division is great, but that’s not what it’s about. All I want to do is win with these guys.”
What he also wants is for people to stop saying they want the Flaherty of 2019, or even the first half of 2021, back. Even the Cardinals’ owner, Bill DeWitt Jr., said it on Monday.
“Let’s hope Jack Flaherty is back to being Jack Flaherty,” DeWitt told reporters.
Flaherty wants the 2023 version of Flaherty to be even better. So does his manager, Oli Marmol. So do his fellow starting pitchers, who have gone through all of the frustration with him the last two years.
“He knows what he’s capable of doing, and is frustrated when he doesn’t show that,” Marmol said. ”No one is going to have higher expectations on Jack than Jack is going to have on Jack. We know what he’s capable of. When he says this is the best he’s felt in a long time that’s exciting for everybody.
“There were a lot of variables that kind of impacted Jack (last year). It was a frustrating year for everybody. He wants to see us win. A lot of his frustration is he feels like he’s letting everybody down by not being on the mound every fifth day. Mentally that takes a toll on you too when you know you can help and you’re not able to. Physically and mentally it was tough on him last year.”
Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas know what it’s like to be injured and not be able to pitch. They also know how it feels to come back and succeed again, which is what they expect to see from Flaherty this year.
“The thing with Jack is the potential is there, the talent is there,” Wainwright said. “He’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen. We’ve just got to keep him healthy.
“He’s training so hard right now to go out and do that. He hears all these people, the ones that believe in him, but we all hear the ones that don’t believe in us too. Those are sometimes the ones that give you the best nudge to get you over the hump of wanting to train a little bit harder, to do a little bit more. But he wants it, he wants to win, he wants to be good and show the world that he can be great.”
Mikolas knows a healthy Flaherty will help out the other starters as well.
“When he’s healthy, it’s exciting,” Mikolas said. “He’s one of those guys that is really fun to compete against. He likes to get under your skin and you can get under his. Our little in-rotation type of stuff, he’s a guy you want in that competition because he’s going to help elevate your game.
“It’s frustrating to be hurt. It’s hard not to wear it on your face or your body language. It’s upsetting not to be out there in those big situations especially when you know you have so much talent to give. I’m just excited for him to be healthy and win a whole lot of ballgames.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains