Flaherty, Contreras together again as Cardinals teammates share an embrace, words of support

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras walks off the field after working during the second inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Monday, May 15, 2023, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS – After the seventh and final of Jack Flaherty’s shutout innings delivered against the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday night, his catcher, Willson Contreras, stood a step above him in the Cardinals’ dugout, his arms wrapped tightly around the pitcher’s neck.

Eleven days after they last paired up as a battery – eleven days since Contreras started behind the plate at all – the energy between the two could scarcely have been more different than what seemed to hover in the air between them at the season’s outset.

“That feels way different,” a laughing Contreras said of the embrace. “For sure, that feels so good. I’m proud of that guy, to be honest. I know that I’ve only been here for a few months, and seeing him go through his business is really impressive, but putting his mindset whatever he did for this is even better.”

Flaherty’s assessment: “I think I have just been distant, like, as a person. He’s somebody that I talk to everyday.

“It was something just to give him props for what he’s been able to do…I just went in, I was like, I’m gonna trust him, and as long as I execute, good things are going to happen,” Flaherty said of Contreras. “He did an unbelievable job.”

For as much as the Cardinals strained to emphasize Contreras’s overall work behind the plate during the bizarre week-and-a-half-long flip flop over his catching future, it would be willful ignorance not to draw a connection to Flaherty. It was after the righty’s May 4 start in which he allowed a career-high 10 runs and did not escape the third inning that he mused openly about what the staff, collectively, was doing with two strikes.

It was Flaherty, along with Adam Wainwright, who were wrangled into a meeting with Contreras as the club prepared to depart for Chicago in what has been alternately described as an icebreaker and a show of support. And it was Flaherty on the mound Monday in Contreras’s return behind the plate, turning in one of the best starts of his career.

It had been more than two calendar years since Flaherty last completed seven innings in a start. He last turned in at least 10 strikeouts in a game during the 2020 season. The pitcher and catcher, each working through their own processes, one nearing the end of his contracted time in St. Louis and the other just beginning, were going to have to work together well if a lagging season is to be salvaged.

Monday’s 18-1 thumping of first place Milwaukee drew the last place Cardinals to within eight games of .500 from a nadir of 14 games below. Despite their worst first quarter of a season in 116 years, St. Louis sits only 6.5 games out of first place and 3.5 games out of a playoff spot.

Entering play Tuesday, Baseball Reference estimates their chances of reaching the postseason at 60%, and they have a run differential of +7. That bests every team between them and the playoffs save for the Chicago Cubs, and outpaces the Brewers by four.

“I think there was something they needed to see out of me,” Contreras said of his time between turns behind the plate. “They need to see the real Willson Contreras. I’m not saying that I was trying to act differently, but…now they know that I care a lot. And that probably was something that they needed to see out of me, and they did.”

Manager Oliver Marmol said: “We’re dealing with humans, and this game has a lot of emotions tied to it. Overall confidence is driven by it. I couldn’t agree more that that was an important meeting [in Chicago], and we’re seeing the benefits of it.”

Less than two weeks after floating the possibility of Contreras rumbling around the outfield and wavering on whether there was a long term goal of returning him back behind the plate at all, Marmol reiterated several times Monday that things were back to business as usual; Contreras is “an everyday catcher. He will be, and we’re a lot better that way.”

Replacing Yadier Molina was never going to be done by acquiring a catcher who would make more than 130 starts per season. Contreras, catching what the team defines as every day, is still unlikely to exceed 110 games or so behind the plate. Andrew Knizner’s offensive turn, coupled with his strong rapport with starting pitchers (Miles Mikolas in particular) means that the Cardinals are likely to resume heading off down the path they had in mind when they made their commitment to Contreras this winter.

What Monday’s performance did do, however, is return them from the wilderness. A baffling series of messaging choices and personnel decisions may well all fade into the margins if the team is able to build on a season-best streak of results.

They’ll have to in order for the bounce back to matter much at all.

“At this point, you just got to get greedy,” Marmol said. “One game at a time, and we’re looking to take all of them. We put our own backs against the wall, so it’s our job to get out of it now.”