Positioned behind the mound at SunTrust Park late Friday afternoon, St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty carefully traced his finger on the dirt in the shape of “TS 45.”
He had performed this ritual 17 times since July 1, the day close friend Tyler Skaggs, the Angels pitcher was found dead in his Texas hotel room. It was second nature to do it again.
Flaherty, a first-round draft pick out of Studio City Harvard-Westlake High in 2014, had looked up to Skaggs for years. They both grew up in the Los Angeles area, 2010 draftee Skaggs in Santa Monica and Flaherty some 15 miles away. The same agent represented them. They met and began working out together, members of the “Dungeon Crew” that frequented a small Pepperdine University facility during the offseason.
Flaherty was shaken by Skaggs’ passing. He mourned the friend who imbued a room with energy and encouraged everyone to reach their ceilings.
Flaherty, 23, channeled the heartbreak into one of the finest second-half performances seen in the last 100 years. With Skaggs’ name drawn into mounds across the country, Flaherty posted an ERA of 0.91 over his final 15 regular-season starts. His performance, which Skaggs’ mom, Debbie, has championed on her private Twitter feed, propelled the St. Louis Cardinals to their first postseason berth since 2015.
“He’s always with me,” Flaherty said Thursday before his Game 2 start in the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves on Friday. “I can feel him. You just feel that energy.
“Just the way he attacked, his attitude, his mind-set. It didn’t matter what the situation was, who was out there. He was going out there doing his thing. Nothing else mattered. He had that confidence, he walked with that little bit of swag. That’s how he was.”
A similar attitude was what the Braves confronted in their 3-0 win that evened the best-of-five series at 1-1.
Ultimately, Flaherty took the backseat in a pitchers’ duel, outdone by Atlanta starter Mike Foltynewicz, who spent six midsummer weeks rediscovering his form in triple A.
Flaherty had trouble getting ahead of batters in the first inning. Josh Donaldson took advantage and hit a two-out single into left field for the Braves’ early 1-0 lead. Flaherty escaped the inning without further damage. Backed by the Cardinals’ top-ranked defense, he sidestepped danger for the five innings that followed.
A day earlier, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak had praised Flaherty’s aggressiveness in the strike zone. In his postseason debut, Flaherty matched the “elite pitcher” label Mozeliak put on him. He struck out eight, wielding his two-speed slider and high-90s heat to elicit swings-and-misses. He suppressed hard contact, limiting the Braves to five singles in the first six innings.
“I know I watched him pitch over the last couple of weeks on TV,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “This kid is something special. He’s a horse. That’s a No. 1 guy right there.”
Flaherty’s smooth rhythm, which catapulted him into the National League Cy Young Award conversation, was interrupted with two out in the seventh inning. Flaherty hung a 96-mph heater on his 105th pitch, and pinch-hitter Adam Duvall belted it for a two-run homer that gave the Braves a 3-0 lead.
Duvall’s swing put a Cardinals comeback out of reach. That, and the anemic Cardinals offense living up to its billing against Foltynewicz.
The right-hander looked nothing like the one the Dodgers lit up in a four-run, two-inning outing during the divisional round last October. Foltynewicz was fierce and precise, his slider controlling the game. He made it nearly three times through the order unscathed and struck out seven without issuing a walk in seven innings.
“You still have that bitter taste in your mouth a year later,” said Foltynewicz, who had a 6.37 ERA when the Braves demoted him in late June and went 6-1 with a 2.65 ERA after rejoining the MLB rotation in August. “You want to prove to people what you still have. It’s just proving a lot of people wrong the whole year.”
Duvall, a 31-year-old who spent the season blitzing triple-A pitching, pinch-hit for Foltynewicz. He’d faced Flaherty in the major leagues in 2017 and 2018. Duvall’s only hit against him was a homer, a blast Duvall said he didn’t remember.
He added an unforgettable one on a fastball Flaherty intended to throw outside of the zone.
Flaherty watched the ball slice through the air as the sold-out crowd of 42,911 cheered its flight. Then Flaherty steeled his nerves. He returned to the rubber on the mound imprinted with Skaggs’ initials and threw 12 more pitches to get out of the seventh.
There was nothing left for him to do.