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VOL. 130 | NO. 35 | Friday, February 20, 2015
Don Wade

Don Wade

Martinez Pitching for Himself, and for Taveras

By Don Wade

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Carlos Martinez’s English isn’t very good. But you don’t need a translator to communicate the raw facts.

“Oscar was my brother, you know?” Martinez said.

Yes, that was all that needed to be said when the 23-year-old right-hander was in Memphis this winter as part of the annual St. Louis Cardinals Caravan.

His good friend Oscar Taveras, who was being counted on to man right field in St. Louis this season, had been killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic; Martinez and Taveras grew up there together before starting to rise through the minor leagues, including being teammates with the Memphis Redbirds.

This was to be the season when each of them put the official stamp on his big-league career. Oscar would wear No. 18 and send line drives all around Busch Stadium and play every day. Carlos would wear No. 44 and finally step full-time into the starting rotation, firing heat while learning how to pitch for the long haul and not just in those electric flashes coming out of the bullpen.

Now, it is Carlos Martinez who will wear No. 18. Upon arrival this week at the Cardinals’ spring training complex in Jupiter, Fla., he discovered he had a new place in the clubhouse, too. Next to All-Star catcher Yadier Molina.

This was at Molina’s request and with manager Mike Matheny’s blessing.

“Carlos is going to be the recipient of baseball talk,” Matheny told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Layers of it, in his native tongue, from the best catcher of this, or maybe any, generation.

Back in January, I had wanted to pick the brains of two former Cardinals pitchers: Alan Benes and Cal Eldred. Both were on the Caravan and offered insight on the transition Martinez is attempting to make.

Understand, the Cardinals made clear their level of belief in, and commitment to, Martinez when they pulled the trigger on the trade that sent right-hander Shelby Miller to Atlanta and brought right fielder Justin Heyward to St. Louis.

Benes spent much of his career as a starter, but also worked out of the bullpen and basically says when starting there’s no safety net.

“Here’s the thing: If you’re struggling out of the bullpen, they can come get you,” Benes said. “If you’re a starting pitcher and it’s the second inning, they can’t come get you. Because you’re hurting the team for the next however long. That’s the main difference.”

Here’s another difference: As a starter, Martinez can’t just have one or two pitches that he relies on. To this point in his young career in the majors (2013-14 with solid postseason work each year), Martinez has thrown his fastball (98 mph) 44 percent of the time, his slider and sinker each about 24 percent of the time, his change-up about 8 percent of the time and his cutter hardly at all, according to data from brooksbaseball.net.

Because the sinker comes in at about 96 mph, he’s only getting a different look with the slider at 87 mph and the change. And as a starter, his durability is a question given his slight build.

“He’s a max effort guy,” Eldred said. “(Closer) Trevor Rosenthal kinda falls into that and Carlos does at times. But can he slow down and command himself like (Adam) Wainwright or (Chris) Carpenter? The only time they step on the gas pedal is when they need to.”

Martinez has been labeled high-strung, but if he can channel that energy….

“It’s all there for him. That being said, there are no guarantees in this game,” Benes said. “Stuff-wise isn’t a problem. The biggest challenge is getting his mind right to go out and pitch every five days.”

And with that, he will have All-Star quality help. He can put a stamp on this season for himself, and for his brother Oscar.

Said Benes: “Having Yadi behind the plate, Carlos can just go out there and say, `Hey, throw the fingers down and let’s roll.’”

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