HOUSTON -- On Aug. 7, the day after Carlos Martinez's worst start this season, against the Atlanta Braves, he arrived at Busch Stadium late enough to violate one of manager Mike Matheny's few rules and late enough to draw the eyes of his teammates, who brought it to Matheny's attention.
Not long after that, a photographer snapped a shot of Matheny having an animated conversation with Martinez. The manager, who speaks Spanish, was holding his index finger and thumb just inches apart. Matheny would say later he was explaining to Martinez how close he is to becoming an elite major league pitcher, with "just a few little things" standing in his way.
That anecdote, culled from discussions with team sources, isn't meant to portray Martinez as a difficult player to coach or to play alongside. Matheny and Martinez insist it was an isolated incident. Matheny said he would have preferred it remain an internal matter. Martinez, who bounced back with a dominant start in the St. Louis Cardinals' 8-2 win over the Houston Astros Wednesday, was assessed a team fine for violating the rule.
"It was a one-time incident. It was something that happened that day. I came late, and I feel really angry with myself because I disrespected the team, I disrespected myself and the manager," Martinez said through an interpreter. "It's something I learned from, and getting fined helps me stay focused and learn that I need to pick a routine and really stick to it."
Everyone seems to pay minute attention to everything Martinez does, which must be annoying at times, but also an indication of how good the team thinks he can be. His old hairstyle, a shaggy blond Mohawk, even came to the attention of general manager John Mozeliak, who suggested he "clean it up," in Matheny's words. Martinez shaved his head.
The Cardinals think Martinez, 24, is getting a better handle on the little things and, just maybe, is in an early stage of the transition from talented young pitcher to elite starter. In some regards, his evolution has been impressive and indicative of a player becoming what the Cardinals think he should be. Wednesday's 79 pitches over seven innings were a 4k, ultra-high-definition display of that.
"He's a No. 1 pitcher's mindset away from being a No. 1," Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. "He's got everything to go with being that guy. It's just going to be up to him being able, mentally, to stay in that place every time."
Sustaining success in the major leagues, players often say, is about making adjustments, having them made against you and then making them again. That cycle repeats throughout a player's career. Martinez seems to be capable of correcting his flaws and keeping his season on track.
The six worst-pitched games of his season came in two discrete bundles. From May 14-25, Martinez had game scores of 40, 37 and 35, going 0-3 with an 8.40 ERA, for those who prefer more traditional measures. Going into Wednesday, he was riding the next three-worst game scores of 47, 30 and 47 and was 0-1 with a 6.50 ERA. Between the two slumps, Martinez was 6-1 with a 1.76 ERA. Before the first slump, he was 4-2 with a 2.61 ERA.
Martinez's game score of 78 Wednesday was one off his season high.
He seems to be fixing whatever ails him, which could be an indication the message Matheny, Lilliquist and his veteran teammates want him to receive is getting through. Or it could be an indication that, in his fourth season in the majors, he simply knows what he is doing by now. He leads the Cardinals in wins (11), ERA (3.24) and strikeouts (119), and he's two outs behind Mike Leake and Adam Wainwright in innings (144 1/3). He must be doing something right, but everyone seems to feel there's so much more to be had.
"He wants to be great and he has every tool necessary to be great. I just want to help him get out of his own way sometimes, and that's going to be a consistent challenge," Matheny said. "Maybe that's something you could say about all of us. It just seems like when you have such amazing talent like him, it seems a little more obvious."
One of the discussions surrounding Martinez is whether he wants to be efficient or dominant. Does he want to pitch deep into games or pile up strikeouts? Those two goals often conflict. The Cardinals would prefer efficiency. Martinez says he would, too, but the team feels the need to remind him from time to time.
On Wednesday, he was both. He started out by striking out four of the first seven batters he faced before kicking it into ground ball mode. Martinez didn't allow a base hit until Teoscar Hernandez led off the sixth inning with a double just inside third base. After Alex Bregman drove Hernandez in with a line drive up the middle, Martinez turned around to catcher Yadier Molina and raised his right hand as if to say, "That's on me." The pitch was right down the middle of the plate at 95 mph.
"When a guy's throwing 100 [mph], it's pretty flat and when the guy's throwing 91-92, it's moving a lot, so sometimes it's good for him, sometimes bad," catcher Yadier Molina said. "Today was good."
Everyone seems to have an opinion on so many of the things Martinez does. They wouldn't bother if they didn't think he could help them, a lot.