Cards’ 27-year-old star aiming for standout 2023 and to win big for Wainwright Cardinals News 

12:52 AM UTC

ST. LOUIS — Jack Flaherty is often no match for the emotions stirring inside of him, even after purposefully working this offseason to improve his body language, get better control of his moods and mannerisms, as well as to celebrate his emergence from an injury-plagued stretch, rather than dwell on it. Try as he might, the talented Cardinals pitcher still struggles to keep his emotions from leaking outward.

Pick a topic, any topic, and the hard-throwing righty has a passionate, heartfelt response. Whether it’s Flaherty’s two lost seasons due to repeated injuries, his bond with retiring teammate Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina’s own retirement and the signing of backstop Willson Contreras or recapturing the magic Flaherty had in 2019, there is no such thing as a poker face with him.

Flaherty’s ability to wear his emotions on his sleeve, which has at times been misinterpreted as unhappiness or moodiness, is something he’s worked at while preparing for potentially the most pivotal season of his Major League career.

If the 27-year-old Flaherty can resemble the dominant ace he was during 2019 and the start of the ’21 season, the Cardinals could be contenders for a World Series run and Flaherty could set himself up to cash in as a free agent. If not, Flaherty’s frustration from recent years will undoubtedly (and understandably) resurface.

“From a body language standpoint, and [with] my mindset, it’s been something where I’ve been able to grow after being around certain people [and] having conversations about how to grow and be a better teammate, and how to be a better version of myself on the mound,” Flaherty said on Monday at the Cardinals Winter Warm Up festivities.

“I’ve always felt like I’ve been pretty good mentally, but there are points where you think you’re doing better than you actually are. I figured that out a little, and how to get back to being what makes me, me. Then it carries to the mound, and everybody sees who I am and what I can do.”

The Cardinals are hoping to see the version of Flaherty that struck out 231 over 196 1/3 innings in 2019 and posted an 8-0 record in early ’21, or even a facsimile of the pitcher from late last season, who struck out nine in a September game in San Diego. That’s the pitcher they’re hoping will lead their staff.

Confident Flaherty has big things ahead. And his confidence is reflected by the ballclub, too. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak said his club never entertained signing a free-agent pitcher this offseason. After all, healthy Flaherty can be as good as any pitcher the Cardinals might have signed for gobs of free-agent cash.

“My confidence in Jack is at an all-time high,” Mozeliak said. “He’s had a really good offseason. His preparation has been very strategic and he’s in a good spot. I think he understands the importance of this year.”

Contreras, the catcher signed to replace Molina, hopes the Cardinals get the version of Flaherty he hated facing as a member of the rival Cubs.

“Facing Flaherty in 2019 — he was something special,” said Contreras, who hopes to start working with his new teammate next week at the team headquarters in Jupiter, Fla. “I told [Mozeliak], ‘If we get this guy healthy, everything will be fine.’ When he’s at his best, he’s almost unhittable.”

Flaherty never got momentum the past three years, largely due to oblique and right repeated shoulder injuries. He made just nine starts in 2020, 15 in ’21 and eight in ’22. COVID delays killed his ’20 momentum and injuries interrupted his undefeated start in ’21. As for last season, it was mostly start-and-stop: Flaherty went on the 15-day IL twice, and he was subsequently transferred to the 60-day IL both times.

“I’ve watched three playoff losses in the last [two seasons] and I haven’t pitched in any of them, and that doesn’t feel good,” Flaherty said. “Nobody wants to go out and lose. But if we’re going to lose, I want to have the ball in my hands.”

A best-case scenario for the Cardinals would be Flaherty getting the ball on Opening Day. Flaherty said Wainwright’s impending retirement is a driving force behind his own desire to have a strong season. He wants the Cards to win big for Waino. Emotions, and tears, flowed freely on Monday as Flaherty discussed how much the veteran cornerstone means to him.

“He’s been an unbelievable friend to me from Day 1,” Flaherty recalled. “That dude is an unbelievable person, and he is someone I’ve been so lucky to be around to have as a teammate and a friend. I can’t thank him enough for being there, literally from Day 1, and helping me to get to this point, [and] continuing to have my back through everything that has gone on.”