Nothing says "Hey, kid, go be our ace!" like a long-term contract extension and an Opening Day start.
It's early yet, but Carlos Martinez sure looks ready, willing and able to oblige the St. Louis Cardinals.
It was Randal Grichuk who played the hero in the Cardinals' 4-3 win over the Chicago Cubs in the nightcap of Sunday's trio of Opening Day games. He hit the Cardinals' first home run of 2017 in the eighth inning and, in response to Willson Contreras' game-tying homer in the top of the ninth, walked it off with an RBI single in the bottom of the ninth.
Earlier, however, it was Martinez who had everyone's full attention at Busch Stadium—and elsewhere.
The 25-year-old made the defending champs look like something significantly less than the defending champs in the first Opening Day assignment of his career. He shut them out through seven and a third, allowing just six hits and no walks. He struck out 10.
Not a bad way to drive home a point that had already been made with a five-year, $51 million contract extension, and made again when Martinez was tabbed to open the season in the first place.
Quite simply: The Cardinals' starting rotation is in his hands now.
Although Adam Wainwright is still employed by the Cardinals, the 4.62 ERA that the veteran put up in 2016 dealt a blow to his status as the club's de facto ace.
But even though Martinez owns an excellent 2.97 ERA since becoming a full-time starter in 2015, he was still shocked when he got the news.
"I didn't believe it," he said of when Cardinals manager Mike Matheny informed him he was going to be on the mound on Opening Day, according to Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. "I thought he was talking about another game. I thought he was talking about an exhibition game in Memphis or Springfield [Mo.]. I felt very happy. Thank God, I'm representing the team like a No. 1."
While Martinez had reasons to feel humbled, he had no reasons to be nervous. He's pitched in two National League Championship Series and the World Series. He also pitched for the Dominican Republic in this year's World Baseball Classic.
For him, Sunday's start was not a moment to be intimidated by. It was a moment to own.
He started owning it before he even threw a pitch. His first act was to write two numbers on the back of the Busch Stadium mound: a No. 18 for late Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras and a No. 30 for late Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura.
It was a touching tribute to two fallen friends and countrymen who tragically passed away in car accidents in the Dominican Republic—Taveras in 2014 and Ventura just three months ago.
Then the pitches came. Boy, did they ever come.
Martinez announced his presence with authority by fanning Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, with a 100-mph fastball in the first inning. His heat sat in the mid-to-high 90s the rest of the way, forcing Cubs hitters into a pattern of defensive swings.
Oh, yeah. He had a pretty good changeup and slider going, too. Straight from the Pitcher List, here's a sampling of the three-pitch mix he was rocking:
Nasty. Very nasty.
But certainly not unexpected. This is the same guy who ranks in the top five among starters with an average fastball of 95.5 mph over the last two seasons. He has elite arm-side fade on his changeup and elite glove-side run on his slider.
In 2015 and 2016, the damage done by this stuff was considerable.
Martinez whiffed 8.6 batters per nine innings. He also collected ground balls at a lower rate than only Dallas Keuchel. To boot, only six other starters were barreled—a Statcast specialty that looks for ideal combinations of launch angle and exit velocity—less often.
Make no mistake, folks. Martinez has been one of the most unhittable pitchers in baseball. And one of the best in the National League as well.
This trajectory alone could be enough to get him the Cy Young attention that's mysteriously eluded him the last two seasons. And then there's the possibility that he has more tricks up his sleeve.
As Wainwright put it, according to Mark Saxon of ESPN.com:
We haven't even seen what [Martinez is] capable of yet. I think last year was the start of the beginning of what he could do. But I mean, does anybody think he's capped out at a 3-something ERA and 16 wins? I think he can do a lot better, a lot more, and I think he will do a lot better and a lot more. He's doing everything he needs to do that.
What Martinez did Sunday night could be the beginning of Wainwright's prophecy coming true.
Yes, his stuff was as nasty as ever. The real difference is found in the goose egg that Martinez posted in the walk column. Free passes have been his one (and arguably only) vice, so zero right out of the gate is nothing if not encouraging.
And remember, this is no free-swinging club he was up against. The Cubs drew more walks than anyone last year and trotted out their best lineup against Martinez. He still carved them up every which way.
The catch: It's only one start.
The hell-with-it optimistic take: Martinez should have a lot more like it in him.
Call it a hunch. Call it an educated guess.
But as far as the rest of the National League is concerned, it's a warning.