MILWAUKEE -- Though designated a fifth starter by rotation order alone, right-hander Carlos Martinez has hardly shown himself a weak link in a Cardinals rotation that has soared to the best start of any staff in the Majors.
With Martinez's scoreless effort in the team's 3-0 win over Milwaukee on Friday, the rotation ERA dipped to 2.06, more than a half run lower than any other starting five. Confident they had anchors atop the rotation with Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn, the Cardinals have watched as Michael Wacha (1.33 ERA) and Martinez (1.35 ERA) have outpitched both now three times through the rotation.
Hindered by inefficiency as a spot-starter last year, Martinez continues to hurdle that obstacle with ease this season. After going six innings in his first two starts, Martinez finished seven for the first time in his career. In it, he matched his career high with eight strikeouts, several of which were key to keeping the Brewers hitless with runners in scoring position.
Over 20 innings this season, Martinez has now allowed just three runs. Those results come, of course, after he spent the spring battling just to crack the rotation. Now, he's growing up before everyone's eyes.
"He can be pretty special," said Yadier Molina, who caught Martinez's first four innings before exiting with right knee soreness. "He's getting aggressive, attacking the hitter, putting away with that slider and changeup. He's doing well so far."
Different from his first two starts, Martinez dialed up the radar gun a bit on Friday. With a lively fastball, he chose not to pull back on the velocity in order to find better command, but rather threw it as he did so routinely out of the bullpen. He reached at least 96 mph on 23 of the 55 fastballs he threw.
He maintained the velocity late, too, flashing 97 mph, 96 mph and 95 mph pitches in succession while striking Ryan Braun out in the sixth.
"I felt really good with the fastball, so I tried to throw the fastball really hard," said Martinez, who has limited the Brewers to four earned runs over 25 1/3 career innings. "I felt comfortable today. I commanded the strike zone real well."
Asked if he's seen many pitchers with pitches like Martinez's, Milwaukee's Khris Davis said, "No, not many. Not a fastball like that."
That power fastball continues to be complemented by a changeup and slider that Martinez has shown great confidence in. Those two pitches notched him five strikeouts (four swinging) and, along with his two-seam fastball, have helped facilitate the more efficient innings.
"I think it's him learning how to use his stuff," manager Mike Matheny said. "I can't say enough about how he's embraced the idea of using his changeup, using his breaking ball, getting early strikes, so everything isn't just hard and harder. That typically messes with the timing of the hitter, which then leads to some earlier outs."