Cardinals are wasting some of Carlos Martinez's best starts

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals believe they have a young pitcher who is growing into one of the National League’s elite starters.

But like so many things in this up-and-down season, whether it’s another dynamic half by Matt Carpenter or the emergence of Aledmys Diaz, one of the best stretches of Carlos Martinez’s career has been largely wasted.

The Cardinals have lost Martinez’s past four starts, most recently dropping a 4-2 decision to the Pittsburgh Pirates Monday afternoon after an 86-minute rain delay at the start.

In the seventh inning, well past his 100th pitch, Martinez badly wanted a slider near the outside corner against John Jaso to be called a strike. When umpire Dale Scott didn’t bite -- the pitch was close, but perhaps not a strike -- Martinez threw back his head and tossed his arms in the air. His next pitch went whistling into center field off Jaso’s bat, the Pirates’ third run scoring on the play.

Such has been Martinez’s fate lately, the victim of bad luck and circumstance. The Cardinals have lost those four Martinez-pitched games by scores of 4-3, 4-3, 3-2 and 4-2. He has allowed a total of four runs in them.

“I think the rest of the league sees what we see. This guy’s a top-tier pitcher,” manager Mike Matheny said. “He’s taken that step in his career to where he’s figuring out how to pitch on a consistent basis, to find his stuff, to get quick outs, and then he’s got all the power you could ever ask for, so he’s putting it all together. It will be fun to watch him do it for the rest of this season.”

Martinez is making a late All-Star push, even if his 7-6 record offers few clues to his fine recent form. In his past seven starts, he has a 1.46 ERA and he ranks 15th overall in ERA (2.90) and 10th in WAR (2.9) among NL pitchers. With starters such as Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg unlikely to pitch for the NL All-Stars due to injury, Martinez could pick up his second straight berth. Then again, the lack of wins could make it easier to leave him off the team.

“I feel really good mentally and physically, and I feel like I’ve reached a point where I’m mentally mature enough to pitch at this level,” Martinez said through an interpreter.

Even if Martinez had escaped that seventh inning unscathed, there is no guarantee that the Cardinals would have won. They have had some issues hitting finesse pitchers like the Pirates’ Jon Niese. In six innings, Niese, who came in with a 5.07 ERA, had only one spot of real trouble -- the fifth inning -- and he managed to get out of it allowing just one run. Carpenter -- who else? -- drove it in with a line-drive single to right field. The Cardinals are just past the halfway point of their season and their leadoff hitter has 53 RBIs. Carpenter drove in the Cardinals’ other run on a two-out double off Neftali Feliz in the ninth.

They should have scored at least one more run in that fifth inning, but with one out, Diaz couldn’t get Martinez in from third base. He hit a tapper back to Niese. Martinez can hit a little bit, too. He had two line-drive hits to extend his hitting streak to four games, and he leads all Cardinals pitchers with a .290 batting average. He trails Adam Wainwright (.433) by a wide berth in slugging percentage, though. Martinez has nine hits, all singles.

Pittsburgh immediately answered the Cardinals’ first run on Gregory Polanco’s line-drive two-run home run to right field. Polanco later hit one to the opposite field off reliever Seth Maness.

Bases-loaded, nobody-out jams are never ideal, but if you’re going to have one, it’s best to have a guy batting less than .100 and a pitcher coming up. That’s what Martinez dealt with in the fifth inning before he struck out catcher Erik Kratz on three pitches and then got Niese to hit into an inning-ending double play.