HOUSTON • The correlation is unerring: When Jason Motte does well, so do the Cardinals.
The reward for his team's 5-1 week had double significance for Motte on Monday, when he learned that he had been named National League player of the week only hours after amassing his 40th save this year.
Motte, in his first full season as Cardinals closer, became only the fourth reliever in team history to reach the milestone when he finished Sunday's 6-3 win over the Chicago Cubs. Motte saved each of the Cardinals' five wins last week and had recorded the final out in 10 of the club's 11 September wins entering Monday night. A year ago manager Tony La Russa named Motte his closer out of necessity. Sunday Motte entered the company of Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith and Jason Isringhausen as Cardinals 40-save men.
"When you think about 'Izzy,' Lee Smith and Bruce — guys who have had great careers — I'm for one year at least in a category with those guys. It's nice," acknowledged Motte, who called the milestone "a good accomplishment, but we've still got some ball left. That's what my priority is."
Motte, who didn’t gain his first of nine saves last season until Aug. 28, earned league recognition in the week following arguably this season’s toughest outing, a Sept. 15 blown save against the Los Angeles Dodgers that briefly dropped the Cardinals into a tie for the second NL wild card.
Motte responded the next day by converting the first of six saves within his team’s next seven games.
Reminded of the turnaround, Motte referenced manager Mike Matheny’s backing as well as the support felt within a close clubhouse.
"All these guys in the clubhouse have faith in you going out and doing the job. It’s a great feeling to have," he said. "After that Dodger game (Matheny) said, ‘Keep doing your thing; we want you back out there tomorrow.’ And he put me right back out there the next day. Him having confidence in you like that helps your own confidence. Whether you’re coming off a good day or a bad day, he believes in me as much is I believe in me."
The weekly award is a rare honor for a reliever but Motte entered Monday leading the league in saves. No other Cardinals pitcher has one. His fatigue-related absence from Friday’s game in Chicago coincided with a blown ninth-inning lead as Matheny refused to use him for an eighth time in nine games.
"He doesn’t just care about the save, or whatever, even if your arm falls off tomorrow. That’s good to know. It tells you a lot about the kind of person he is," said Motto, who learned of the award Monday afternoon via text from Matheny.
A year after La Russa repeatedly refused to publicly anoint Motte his closer, Matheny had no problem placing an indelible stamp on him.
"I don’t think that’s too much to put on him," Matheny said. "The guy closed out the World Series. I think you could have told him right then that he’s an established closer, let alone really earning that spot and going through a season with an organization that has a rich tradition and become only the fourth closer to have 40 saves. I don’t know what else you could ask from a guy to have him stamped as established."
Holliday, Molina back
Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday and catcher Yadier Molina returned to the lineup a day after Holliday exited in the ninth inning because of lingering back discomfort, and Molina failed to start because of issues that forced him from Saturday's game.
The Cards' training staff put Molina through a series of tests Monday afternoon designed to localize the discomfort he felt in the lower left side of his back and side while jack-knifing from a pitch. According to Matheny, the trainers could not replicate the discomfort Molina suffered Saturday. Molina smiled and offered little when approached about his condition.
"I'm in the lineup," he said. "So I must be OK."
He responded by drilling a long home run in the fourth inning.
"It's amazing how quick he rebounds," Matheny said. "He's had so many things this year (wrist, oblique, back, shoulder, neck) that usually put guys out for days, if not weeks. He takes a little bit of time and then is right back in there — and not just in there, but in there effectively."
Riding a five-game hitting streak entering Monday night, Holliday has confronted back and flexor issues much of the season. The condition typically becomes more pronounced as games progress and also factored in him leaving for a pinch-runner Saturday.
Freese is sidelined
Cardinals third baseman David Freese will likely miss the remainder of the series after spraining his right ankle moments before Monday's first pitch.
As part of his pre-game routine, Freese runs and performs agility drills in the visitors batting cage. The Minute Maid Park cage is notorious for what Freese called "soft spots" in its floor. Freese found one with his right foot and dropped to a knee in pain. Since the incident occurred after the exchange of lineup cards, Freese technically made the start but was replaced in the bottom of the inning by Matt Carpenter, who singled twice and scored the Cardinals' first run.
Freese spent much of the night being X-rayed (they proved negative) and having his ankle heavily taped. He challenged Fox Sports Midwest's characterization that he was in "excruciating" pain.
"It kind of frustrates me. Nobody knows how I felt. It's not the right word to use," Freese said. Asked for his description, Freese simply called it "painful."
Freese, who has a history of ankle problems that include 2009 surgery to reconstruct the right one, entered the game on a seven-game hitting streak but has received more time off recently as he has appeared in more than 100 games for the first time in a major-league season.
"I went to a knee and thought, 'Oh, great.' In a few days -- I don't know. We'll see how it feels tomorrow," Freese said. "I rolled it pretty good."
Freese called the injury "frustrating" and lamented the condition of the facility. "I think they need to put some money in that cage," he said, describing its condition as "brutal."