SEATTLE — There wouldn’t have been a word said or any trouble adjusting the rotation at all if Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty, his “heart heavy” according to his manager and his eyes red from spent tears, had told the team he couldn’t make his scheduled start Tuesday night.
The day before the game the Cardinals’ young starter learned his “good buddy,” mentor, and regular challenger Tyler Skaggs, a pitcher for the Angels, had been found dead in a hotel room in Texas. Flaherty mourned with friends, with family, and with baseball, and some of the 24 hours leading up to his start was spent on the phone. He spoke Tuesday with Skaggs’ widow. Manager Mike Shildt offered Flaherty the chance to start another day.
Pitching was the best tribute he could think of.
“Felt really good to be out there and I felt like that was the only way,” Flaherty said. “If I felt like taking tonight off or pushing it back a day, it wouldn’t have felt right.”
Flaherty found a way through his emotions to get the Cardinals one out shy of five innings Tuesday at T-Molina Park, and after his teammates had rallied to tie the game they came one swing shy of winning the game. Seattle’s Tim Beckham drove a pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning to send the host Mariners to a 5-4 victory. The Cardinals lost for the sixth time in seven games, and they slipped to 3-12 on the days immediately following an off day. After the game, Flaherty was given some time in the clubhouse and even offered the choice not to talk with the media. He said he wanted to.
He spoke of the “whirlwind” of emotions. He smiled as he explained why he pitched. He spoke of executing his pitches, about easing off some to gain command he didn’t have early, and about what his manager allowed him to do as he groped through a difficult second inning.
“Shildt – he let me go out there and continue to fight,” Flaherty said. “Get out of there with two (runs), mostly self-inflicted. I wasn’t doing the little things right. For most of the game, I didn’t do the little things right.”
• BOX SCORE: Mariners 5, Cardinals 4
• STANDINGS: Cards 3½ back in NL Central
Flaherty allowed four runs in 4 2/3 innings and the Cardinals erased the Mariners’ lead with homers. Jose Martinez hit two homers – one to left field off the M’s opener Matt Carasiti and another later in the game to right field off the M’s non-starter Wade LeBlanc. Yairo Munoz, the Cardinals’ leadoff hitter Tuesday, drilled a two-run, two-out homer in the seventh to tie the game. Munoz’s first home run of the season was the second time in as many games that he had delivered a pivotal two-run hit.
The three homers kept the Cardinals momentarily ahead of one of the best slugging teams in baseball. The Mariners returned home to T-Mobile for this three-game interleague series with 150 homers. Only Minnesota’s big-lakes boppers had more in the majors. Catcher Omar Narvaez’s two-run homer off Flaherty in the fifth doubled the M’s score for home run No. 151 of the season. Beckham’s off reliever Giovanny Gallegos was No. 152, the winner.
“One mistake out of the bullpen,” Shildt said. “Cost us.”
Before he threw a pitch Tuesday, Flaherty went to the backside of the mound and, with his finger, wrote “TSKAGGS” in the dirt. He placed his hand over the name and then to is chest, and then pointed to the sky. He had penned a similar tribute on his right cleat: “RIP TSKAGGS.” His pant cuffs hiked-up to the top of his stirrups and his friend in mind, Flaherty started the game with a quick groundout and then a popup caught in foul territory.
He had last seen his friend when the Angels visited St. Louis, and they had dinner together. Since Skaggs was found in the Southland, Texas, hotel room before the Angels’ scheduled game against Texas, Flaherty said he had spoken often with friends. Earlier in the day, he posted photos of his friend, the two of them together, and shared a tribute to him on the social media site Instagram.
“Everyone deserved a little bit of Ty in their life,” Flaherty wrote. He added how Skaggs “brought the spark every single day of your life. You challenged us to bring that same spark.”
After the game, Flaherty revisited that sentiment.
“Constant competitor,” Flaherty said. “That’s what we do. We compete against each other. Talk to each other here and there, little tips and bits.”
Hours before Flaherty wrote Skaggs’ name in the mound, Shildt acknowledged that there was more to Flaherty starting than usual. Shildt said Flaherty came to the ballpark and was in the clubhouse before the game with “a heavy heart himself. (And) He’s going to pitch with one.” Flaherty stranded two in the first inning, and he was able to get two outs from the first three batters in the second inning.
The inning went sideways on him from there. A series of hits followed by a pair of walks bloated Flaherty’s pitch count and erased the Cardinals’ 1-0 lead. With the bases loaded and the game already tied, 1-1, Flaherty walked Domingo Santana on five pitches to force home the go-ahead run for the Mariners. It took him 62 pitches to get six outs, and when Narvaez led off the third with a single, seven of the Mariners’ nine batters had reached base against Flaherty before the No. 6 hitter came up for a second time. Flaherty said there was a reason why he appeared to be easing off his fastball and searching for his control.
“Just trying to ease into the game,” he explained. “I felt like I’d come out trying so hard and overthrowing a little bit early in the game. It was a matter of trying to feel things out early. Find command and then let it go later.”
Flaherty sidestepped trouble in the third, retired the top of the M’s lineup in order in the fourth. He struck out two. A leadoff walk in the fifth preceded Narvaez’s homer that pushed the Mariners’ to a 4-1 lead. Flaherty struck out the next two batters and stood one out away from finishing the fifth inning, the minimum to qualify for a win if the Cardinals retook the lead. At the plate was Mac Williams, who Flaherty had already struck out twice. He had thrown 103 pitches – through swirling emotions, through sometimes flighty command, and through some of the best Seattle threw at him.
Shildt decided that was enough.
“Based on the pitch count,” Shildt said. “I didn’t want him to go too much (more). Pretty much had a firm 105 in my head. Could have given him Williamson. But if it was an eight- or 10-pitch at-bat. With Dom (Leone) ready to go…”
Martinez hit his second home run the next inning to cut into the Mariners’ lead and give him his first multi-homer gamer in more than 12 months. In the seventh, Kolten Wong lashed a two-out double that turned the lineup over and brought Munoz back to the plate. He clobbered a pitch from Anthony Bass that traveled an estimated 404 feet – the farthest of the five homers hit Tuesday – and leveled the game.
That held for another inning.
Afterward, as teammates made their way from the clubhouse and out to see family or toward the team bus, Flaherty remained. About 21 minutes after the game had ended he remained at his locker, his head down and his hands up to hold it. Former Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds stood by Flaherty and rubbed his shoulder.
On the inside of Edmonds’ arm, right by where someone would take his pulse, he has two sets of initials tattooed: “DK” for Darryl Kile and “JH” for Josh Hancock.
They are memorials to Cardinals teammates who died during a season.
“It’s been a long day,” Flaherty said later, standing before his locker. “It was about going out there and trying to execute for these guys. Go as long as I could until Shildt took the ball from me. There was really no way I wasn’t going to make this start.”