Carlos Martinez's brilliance nearly comes up short

MILWAUKEE -- Carlos Martinez smiled when someone asked him if he needed to show his young teammate Alex Reyes that he, too, can throw a baseball 98 mph or harder in a major league game. He smiled, but he also nodded.

Though the St. Louis Cardinals often encourage Martinez to rely less on his ability to throw really, really hard and more on his natural movement and off-speed stuff, getting strikeouts is, after all, kind of a rush. The man is 24 years old, after all.

"Now, 13 strikeouts are pretty cool. That'd be fun," manager Mike Matheny said. "I'd understand why that would be alluring to be able to do. And a lot of stats prove that if we keep striking people out, good things are going to happen."

Some good things are going to happen. Others are not. Large strikeout totals and pitching deep into games don't always coexist peacefully, so the dialogue continues with the most talented pitcher in the Cardinals' rotation.

The reason the Cardinals keep reminding Martinez to concentrate on efficiency is what happened in Monday night's 6-5 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cardinals rallied on Randal Grichuk's eighth-inning home run, but by then Martinez had nothing to do with the outcome. He largely wasted one of his most brilliant performances of the season because of an elevated pitch count, caused in part by his career-high 13 strikeouts. It dragged him out of the game after just six innings.

It's a dicey proposition to rely on just about any bullpen for three innings. It's a dicier proposition to rely on the Cardinals' bullpen at the moment because it's August and many of their top relievers are heavily worked. Martinez sounds like he gets it.

"What's important is length, how many innings I pitch and not how many I strike out," he said through an interpreter.

Martinez had no-hit stuff Monday night and that made for an uncomfortable matchup for the most strikeout-prone team in the major leagues. The distribution of his strikeouts is a startling display of the maturity of his repertoire. It also says a lot about the Brewers, who set a franchise record with 19 total strikeouts in the game.

Martinez had good feel for his changeup and slider, so he used everything he had to attack the Brewers. Four of his strikeouts were on sliders, three were on changeups, three were on curveballs, two were on four-seam fastballs and one was on a sinker (at 96 mph).

He figured the Brewers were looking for four-seamers to try to hit home runs, so he tricked them with just about everything else.

"I really want to keep doing that, switching up the pattern like I have done the last couple times and get the same results," he said.

These Brewers are on pace to break the single-season strikeout record (1,535) set by the Houston Astros in 2013, and Martinez attacked their weakness relentlessly from the start. Eight of his strikeouts came in the first three innings. The only batter who put the ball in play in those innings was Ryan Braun, who hit a harmless grounder to shortstop Jedd Gyorko.

The Brewers didn't hit a ball in the air until the sixth inning. Every out Martinez recorded was either a strikeout or groundout. It was a masterful performance, but for naught. Monday's game was the 10th example of a Cardinals pitcher striking out at least 13 batters without picking up a win. Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton did it three times each. That gives us another clue about just how good Martinez could be.

"He's got a very unique repertoire and a very impressive confidence in every pitch he has," Matheny said. "It's not often you can say that about a pitcher as young as he is."

The Cardinals' bullpen ushered Martinez onto the list by having a bad night. Matt Bowman and Kevin Siegrist combined to allow four runs in the seventh inning. Siegrist faced four batters, allowing two hits and two walks. His first pitch was a ringing double in the gap and his last pitch bounced and walked in a run.

The Cardinals' lineup tends to hit velocity well. Grichuk further demonstrated that trait by loudly cracking reliever Corey Knebel's 95 mph fastball into the right-center field stands to tie the game at 5 in the eighth inning.

The Cardinals, though, can sometimes be flummoxed by pitchers who change speeds well. The Brewers' Zach Davies is just such a pitcher. He dominated the Cardinals here in June, pitching eight scoreless innings with nine strikeouts. He held them down for the most part Monday as well, but the Cardinals' power is hard to totally contain.

Gyorko hit his 23rd home run in the fifth inning. That tied Gyorko's career high, which he had set as a rookie playing for the San Diego Padres. It took him nearly 200 fewer plate appearances to pull it off this time, and the Cardinals have 33 games remaining. Kolten Wong may have bought himself a bit more playing time with a solo home run in the seventh.

Wong showed his talent by nearly stealing the Cardinals a run in the eighth. He stole second and advanced to third on Martin Maldonado's throwing error, but was stranded there when Tommy Pham took a breaking ball for a called third strike.

It was that kind of night for many of the hitters. There were 31 strikeouts in the game, part of an uptick in strikeouts baseball-wide. It's hard to blame Martinez for wanting to go with the flow, even if others think his best path lies elsewhere.