PITTSBURGH — A young pitcher known for his wicked sinker and changeup that darted and stung like a wasp, Carlos Martinez years ago saw teammates such as Adam Wainwright shifting the grip slightly on the fastball for a late, slicing action. The cut fastball, or cutter, was — and on many mounds still is — all the rage, prompting Martinez to study the other Cardinals starters and, he explained Sunday, wonder to himself.
“Can I throw that?” he asked.
He could. He did. He excelled.
And that invited another question.
So why’d he stop?
A pitch Martinez mostly shelved the past two years has become the epicenter of what he’s called the return of “Tsunami,” his nickname, and an end to the jostling waves of inconsistent results. The Pirates got stuck in the undertow Sunday as Martinez tested them with cutter after cutter for eight shutout innings in the Cardinals’ 3-0 victory at PNC Park.
With 33, Martinez threw more cut fastballs in an afternoon along the Allegheny River than he threw total in his 53 games from 2019 through 2020, according to Pitch F/x data.
“I think this is my best pitch right now — unbelievable,” he said. “Never throw like that — so many cutters. But when I need it, yes, I can throw so many cutters. If I’ve got command, I can throw it. I believe in my cutters.”
Martinez’s cut gem delivered the series sweep to the Cardinals, their first three-game series sweep in Pittsburgh since 2016 and their second consecutive series sweep against a division foe. The Cardinals have won eight of their past 10 games.
“Tsunami” personifies how Cardinals starting pitchers have found their sea legs with 14 consecutive starts of at least five innings and no more than three earned runs. Martinez scattered five hits through his 100-pitch start, and the righthander got a dozen of his 24 outs off grounders.
In his third game of the season since returning from the injured list, center fielder Harrison Bader provided the game’s runs with a three-run homer in the second inning. He then had a clear view of Martinez whipsawing through Bucs’ lineups.
No Pirate reached third base.
No inning bloated his pitch count.
“His pace was incredible,” Bader said. “That really kind of propelled our offense, propelled our defense. We’re always on our toes ready to make a play. He was pounding the zone. His stuff was really working well. You love to see that version of ‘Los’ out there. Everybody knows it’s in there.”
Drawing that out has been the Cardinals’ challenge since Martinez was an All-Star and one of the sharpest starters in the National League. Injuries halted his ascent and, at times, made him hesitant to throw at full strength, with the same velocity that sped his rise to the majors.
His return to the rotation last season with a healthy shoulder was interrupted by a bout with COVID-19. He has had fluctuating roles and results for several years. And after embracing the cutter in 2018 — nearly 18% of his pitches that year were cutters — he dumped it.
In nearly 70 innings, many of which he pitched as closer, Martinez threw 21 cutters, total. He’s thrown 57 in his past 15 1/3 innings. A pitch that he threw 3% of the time in his career was one out of every three pitches he threw Sunday.
The past two years, he said, have given him a chance to work on it, talk with Wainwright about how to use it, trust it, turn to it, and now he’s unleashed it.
“It’s been a super really quality pitch for him,” manager Mike Shildt said. “It’s been a pitch that has been really, really effective for him and it’s opened up the rest of his arsenal. I think he’s playing it off a lot of things. Depends on how you look at it, right? The slider sets up the cutter. The cutter sets up the slider. The cutter sets up the sinker, sinker sets up the cutter, and sprinkle in the changeup.”
That was the recipe for many of Martinez’s innings — a dollop of fastballs with the cutter darting in or away and the sinker dancing down. Of the 33 cutters, Martinez threw, eight were fouled off, five were taken for a strike, and 10 were put in play, according to data tabulated by Baseball Savant.
Seven of those 10 became outs.
In the fifth inning he neutralized a leadoff walk by getting some help from a lineout double play. Adam Frazier tagged a cutter that Paul DeJong caught and spun into two outs. In the fourth inning, when an 0-2 fastball veered up and in and hit Jacob Stallings in the face, Martinez watched, crouched near the mound and waited to see if Stallings was OK. The catcher took first base, and Martinez, who has had his innings come unglued before this season, steadied himself with the pitch on which he could rely. He ended the inning briskly with a popup off a cutter.
“I think this is the best stuff that I’ve got,” Martinez said. “I’ve got control of my changeup, my cutters, my slider sometimes, my two-seamer sometimes, and I’ve got my four-seamer there. When I’m trying to throw hard . . . I’ve got the power right now. So I feel great.”
Martinez was on deck in the second inning, offering the Pirates a choice, when starter Wil Crowe got ahead with a fastball to Bader. Batting ahead of the pitcher does not assure strikes, but it can allow a player to be choosy and fixate on an area of the strike zone where he knows his swing does damage. Bader took a 96-mph fastball for strike one, ignored a misplaced sinker for a ball, and then got a tumbling slider right in his crosshairs.
He hit the ball 425 feet to score teammates Tyler O’Neill and Andrew Knizner and capitalize on Crowe’s only inning in which he allowed more than one baserunner.
“If the ball doesn’t do what you want to do then you just take, leave the bat on your shoulder,” Bader said. He laughed: “You’ve got three strikes. Do what you’ve got to do.”
Martinez was back on deck in the sixth, and this time the Pirates did walk Bader to get Martinez and give the Cardinals the choice to lift him for a pinch-hitter. Shildt sided with the starter and his efficient, effective game, even with a runner at third. Martinez would pitch three more innings, facing only nine batters. After nearly three years without a win as a starter, Martinez (2-4) has two in one week.
He got the last out of his game on a flyball to Bader.
Of course, it came off a cutter.
“I love all of my pitches,” Martinez said, holding up his hands. “But my cutter right now is working, working.”
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