Something's off about the Cardinals' ace

The St. Louis Cardinals are being extremely cautious with Sonny Gray, instilling worry that something might not be quite right with the team's stopper.
Chicago Cubs v St. Louis Cardinals
Chicago Cubs v St. Louis Cardinals / Joe Puetz/GettyImages

Sonny Gray has been everything the St. Louis Cardinals have asked for on the mound. He's 7-2 with a 2.60 ERA and 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings. But something may be amiss with the ace after two exceptional starts that were cut shorter than many expected.

In Gray's most recent start, against the Chicago Cubs on May 26, Gray was outstanding through five innings, allowing only one hit and two walks while striking out eight. But after five innings and only 74 pitches, The Cardinals called on John King out of the bullpen. No harm done; the Cardinals held on to win the game 4-3.

Gray said in the postgame interview that he had trouble loosening up his lower half and attributed it to trying to remain ready to pitch during a long rain delay that pushed the game back several hours. Katie Woo of The Athletic said on 101 ESPN that Gray had been throwing for about two hours prior to his start.

Preparation and routine are clearly very important to Gray. Aside from needing to adjust to the belated start against the Cubs, Gray was scheduled to start a game against the New York Mets on May 8, but after that game's postponement, he opposed the Milwaukee Brewers the next day. After surrendering three home runs and five earned runs, Gray said after the game that the hardest part of the start was adjusting to pitching to the Brewers after preparing for the Mets all week.

Although preparation is paramount for Gray — unsurprising given his thespian background — there could be something more worrisome regarding his recent curious exits. Gray raised some eyebrows on May 20 against the Baltimore Orioles, when he requested that manager Oli Marmol remove him from the game after six innings because he had "nothing left." Considering Gray's past two starts, the first of which he requested to be removed because of fatigue and the second where he mentioned lower-body tightness, it's worth wondering if Gray isn't fully over the hamstring injury that sidelined him early in the season.

If Gray is in more pain than he's let on publicly, it makes sense for the team to exercise caution. The Cardinals can't afford to lose Gray, as they've already been desperately searching for a replacement for the injured Steven Matz in the fifth rotation spot.

So far, the bullpen has held up after Gray's last two exits, but it's unrealistic to expect that to be the case every time. The Cardinals may be walking a tightrope with Gray as they try to carefully handle a potentially ailing ace while still keeping the bullpen as fresh as possible.