ST. LOUIS — The damage done, Carlos Martinez headed for the dugout, took a few steps but then stopped, as if he were wondering, "How the heck did that just happen?" He continued on, got a "that’s all right" pat on the back from manager Mike Matheny and took his place in the dugout.
But everything is not all right with the young right-hander. He had just turned a 1-0 eighth-inning lead into a 2-1 deficit with three pitches Wednesday night, giving up a home run to leadoff hitter Gerardo Parro following a pinch single by Eric Chavez. Martinez’s outing was forgiven, though, when the Cardinals went on to beat the Diamondbacks anyway, 3-2 in 12 innings on a walk-off error.
What truly is concerning is how familiar Martinez has become with rough outings. Three days earlier, he unleashed a wild pitch that let in the winning run for the Braves. Nine days before that, he served a three-run homer to the Pirates’ Neal Walker that turned a 4-3 lead into a 6-4 loss. Last month, he gave up four consecutive hits and two runs in one inning that allowed the Nationals to tie a game they would then win in the ninth.
For the season, Martinez has a 4.50 ERA in 24 innings covering 23 appearances. He has allowed 22 hits and walked 10 (four intentionally) while striking out 16. Except for an excellent rate of preventing inherited runners from scoring (only 1 of 15), these aren’t the numbers anticipated from a 22-year-old considered one of the game’s top young pitchers.
"His stuff is too good for that to happen," said Matheny, who called Martinez’s misfortunes the biggest takeaway from one of the most eventful games of the season.
Indeed, Martinez is throwing as hard as last year, as three of his fastballs were clocked at 100 mph against the Diamondbacks, according to mlb.com’s gamecast. For the season, fangraphs.com lists his fastball velocity at 97.0 mph, which is slightly up from last year’s 96.7.
So what’s the problem? It starts with location, as it so often does when a pitcher has problems. Parro proved that when he deposited a 97-mph fastball that caught too much of the plate into the right-field seats.
"When he gets behind in the count, backs off a little bit and gets too much of the plate, that’s when they’re getting him," Matheny said.
Even with a greater margin of error afforded a power pitcher, Martinez is learning there are major league hitters who can be quite unforgiving when you miss your spot. Against those hitters who thrive against the high heat, Martinez needs to do a better job with pitch selection.
"The more the league learns you, the more they realize you’re going to be coming out throwing 99," Matheny said. "You’re going to have to turn it up and make better pitches with 99 and then you’re going to have to get to the point where guys who can hit it, you are going to have to keep them off-balance with the off-speed stuff, which he can do. All those things are within his capabilities, it’s just something he has not had to do much in the past."
Matheny also said that Martinez might not be as sharp as he needs to be when he steps on the mound. As a starter, he could afford to work his way into a game. As a reliever who pitches in high-leverage situations, getting the first hitter is practically mandatory.
"A lot of it has to do with Carlos just being ready," said Matheny, adding that Martinez might need to alter his routine.
Before Thursday night’s game, Martinez said there are no issues with his right arm. "I feel good," he said.
Let’s not forget, either, that he’s a youngster who hasn’t been in the big leagues very long, and he still is adjusting to a new role. While Martinez raised his already great expectations by excelling on the post-season stage, that was a small sample size.
"He’s still trying to figure out how to do it on a consistent basis," Matheny said. "That’s a lot easier said than done."
Perhaps the return of Jason Motte can take some of the stress off Martinez and the Cardinals’ other young relievers. Just don’t look for that to happen overnight. Motte was able to get five key outs in his return but his fastball reached only 93 mph, well off the 98 that he regularly hit before Tommy John surgery. Only an outstanding relay play from Matt Holliday to Daniel Descalso to Yadier Molina on a hard double by Paul Goldschmidt prevented the Diamondbacks from taking the lead with Motte on the mound in the 10th inning.
While Matheny admitted that Martinez’s confidence could use a boost, there are no plans to take him from his late-inning role to give him a chance to regain his mojo.
"There may be opportunities in the middle innings to help with that if everybody’s healthy and throwing the ball well but right now, we have faith in him that he’ll get the job done in big innings," Matheny said. "He’s just going to have to make some minor alterations to make sure he’s as sharp at the beginning as he is in the middle of the inning."
No one doubts his stuff, even after a bad night.
"Let’s be honest about this," Matheny said. "After he gives up a couple of runs, his stuff is untouchable. Carlos is in one of those phases where he hasn’t been hit that much in his whole career. So it’s hard for him to understand what he has to do to make it work when he’s going about it exactly as he has in the past."
You could see that when he walked off the mound, not quite sure of what has been going wrong.