Carlos Martinez gives the Cardinals a taste of the difference he can make in NL Central

MILWAUKEE -- The competition figures to be fierce in the National League Central this season. You have the Chicago Cubs, one season removed from a title and smack in the middle of their window of contention. And you have the rising Milwaukee Brewers, who made the division’s biggest offseason splash by acquiring outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain on the same day during the dead of winter.

Meanwhile, you have the always solid St. Louis Cardinals. Always solid but in recent years, not so much spectacular. The Redbirds have finished over .500 each of the past two seasons, extending their streak of winning campaigns to 10. Yet St. Louis has sat out in October both times, which, in a town that lives and dies with its baseball team, is something like a drought.

Solid is good. But in the heightened competition of baseball’s current top-heavy landscape, it’s hardly enough. However, on Wednesday, the Cardinals saw a glimpse of their most likely path from solid to super. That path, if it opens up, will be lighted by Carlos Martinez.

“That was the best we’ve seen,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “That’s the stuff we expect to see. It was fun to watch him today.”

At times, Martinez is dominant, flashing the kind of stuff and the repertoire you only find among those belonging to baseball’s rarefied club of aces. Martinez certainly dominated the Brewers on Wednesday: 10 strikeouts over 8⅓ shutout innings and a midgame stretch of 15 straight outs, eight by strikeout.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it was Martinez’s fourth outing since the start of the 2017 season in which he reached double digits in K’s without allowing a run. It was the ninth time in his career that he struck out at least 10 batters. If not for a botched grounder by fielding replacement Yairo Munoz that should have been turned into a game-ending double play, Martinez would have had his third career shutout.

Yet we are only a few days removed from Martinez’s clunker in St. Louis’ season opener in New York, where he walked six and failed to get out of the fifth inning. With Martinez, it has never been a question about his ceiling. It’s been about consistency.

“That’s why we talk so highly [about Martinez],” Matheny said. “We’ve seen that [dominance]. That’s a good lineup over there, and to go through it almost four times and not give up a whole lot, it just shows the kind of variety he has in his pitch selection, the movement and the stuff he has.”

Martinez’s pitch count had climbed to 101 by the end of the eighth, but any question of whether he would be allowed to pursue the shutout was quickly answered when he emerged from the St. Louis dugout to lead off the top of the ninth and proceeded to line a single. In the dugout, there was some debate about whether to take Martinez out.

“It was arguable about whether to send him back out,” Matheny said. “He was at [101 pitches]. I kind of liked the idea of him taking a shot at it. He had the ground ball that we needed to make it happen.”

With one out in the ninth, Milwaukee’s Travis Shaw looped a single just over the glove of shortstop Paul DeJong. Then Domingo Santana hit a hard roller right at Munoz -- a prime double-play ball -- but Munoz juggled the ball before throwing late to first. By then, Martinez had reach 114 pitches, four more than any other pitcher has thrown in a game during this young season.

What ultimately convinced Matheny to send Martinez back out wasn’t the stuff, which was still terrific. It was the control with which the righty was delivering it. And by control, he didn’t just mean the ability to locate the ball. He also meant Martinez’s demeanor.

“It’s a big deal to our pitchers,” Matheny said. “You try to take everything into consideration. More than anything else, he was under control. It’s not like he was just out there heaving as hard as he can. He was pitching. I would have liked to have given him a chance to finish, but we got to the point where a long at-bat would send him over 120. That’s further than I want to go right now, for sure.”

For Martinez, it was all about focus, repeating the word again and again like it was a mantra.

“I think it was my focus,” Martinez said. “The first two innings, I was in big trouble. But I never lost my focus. I think that helped.”

And again.

“I want to complete my games,” Martinez said. “[Matheny] gave me the opportunity. That was awesome. After the sixth inning, I was really under control. I was really focused and really, really under control.”

If that’s all it took, it’s a lesson Martinez should take to heart, because he was too much for Milwaukee’s hitters most of the night. The Brewers had trouble making contact, and many of their swings all through the lineup were tentative. According to Statcast, Milwaukee managed to hit triple digits in exit velocity on just one swing -- a Jonathan Villar single in the second.

The average ball in play off Martinez was at just 80.9 mph. Soft contact, and not much of it -- that’s pretty much the definition of dominance. Make no mistake, his teammates took notice.

“He was fantastic,” outfielder Tommy Pham said, putting extra emphasis on that last word. “His stuff was electric. His sinker was moving a lot. He was using his cutter against the lefties, and I think that was something that they’re not used to. And Carlos has one of the best sliders in the game. When you put all of that together with his stuff, you’re going to get a lot of nights like this.”

What’s encouraging for the Cardinals is that there was evidence of a tweak by Martinez a little more tangible than his focus. Martinez used his new cutter 15 times, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. On at-bats ending with a cutter, the Brewers were 0-for-3 with two strikeouts.

“I thought he did a great job today,” Matheny said. “You could tell, just his face, how focused he was. It was a good game plan he and [catcher] Yadier [Molina] had. He found a rhythm. We talk a lot about rhythm with him. He found it earlier than he has recently. Then you just let him go.”

Martinez was even better with his slider, on which Milwaukee went 0-for-9 with six whiffs. But that cutter, if he can control it and keep it down, as he did Wednesday, is yet another weapon for a pitcher who can rev his fastball up into the high 90s when he has his best stuff. If that sounds like a Cy Young contender, that is exactly what St. Louis hopes he will be.

If Martinez can become a first-division rotation anchor, everything else will start to fall in place for a pitching staff that is the Cardinals’ best hope of joining and overcoming the teams on baseball’s crowded elite tier -- a place that the Brewers are trying to reach, as well.

With Martinez sitting atop the rotation hill, Adam Wainwright back from a hamstring injury (he’s starting St. Louis’ home opener on Thursday), Michael Wacha always tough, Miles Mikolas appearing like the Greek Babe Ruth and youngsters Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty looking like keepers -- and even with Alex Reyes still working his way back from injury -- the Cardinals have a staff that can pair star power with depth more dynamically than the Cubs or the Brewers.

But the star power has to come primarily from Martinez. The Cardinals need him to be what he was Wednesday -- a legit, start-after-start ace. And he, like his manager, thinks he has the capacity to be just that.

“I can do that,” Martinez said. “Yeah, I can do that. Right now, I’m just working. Whatever happens in the end, don’t lose your focus.”