Jason Motte has now pitched five times in nine days, and while no flames have flown from his surgically-repaired right arm, nothing has snapped and barely anyone has scored.
Motte’s scoreless ninth inning Sunday was one of the few positive takeaways from San Francisco’s 8-0 rout of the Cardinals, not because the inning by itself held any importance, but because Motte is beginning to string some together.
The righthander has now allowed just one run in six appearances — including none in his last four — since returning from Tommy John surgery, re-emerging after a year on the shelf to dominate in a different way.
He’s a changed, more complete pitcher. Gone is the extreme heater, the recklessness in the zone, the dare-you-to-hit-this mentality. The former fireballer’s signature beard has grown, but he’s doing more with less, at least velocity-wise.
“I think he’s probably completely standard for that procedure,” manager Mike Matheny said. “The normal is going to continue to grow as he strengthens himself. He’s right on track. The most important thing is his body responding and that he feels good after he’s throwing so we can get him out there on a consistent basis.”
Motte threw 11 pitches Sunday, the hardest at 93 miles per hour. Most ranged between 87 and 91, and almost all of them avoided the barrels of a Giants lineup that racked up 37 hits over the four-game series.
“I’m throwing four-seam fastballs, two-seam fastballs, my cutter,” Motte said. “I threw a couple sinkers today.”
Motte was preceded by Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness. Two of those three, Lynn and Martinez, feature fastballs of at least 95 mph. Both get hit hard when they don’t have their command.
“I learned a long time ago, it’s location rather than what you throw and how hard you throw and stuff like that,” Motte said. “I’ve thrown it 99 down the middle and someone’s hit it 550 feet. I’ve also gone out there and thrown a good sinker down and away to someone at 92 and it gets rolled over.”
That happened twice Sunday, when Motte induced weak ground outs from Brandon Hicks and Tyler Colvin. In between, he used a 91 mph cutter to break Juan Perez’s bat. Motte once broke bats with his mammoth arm strength. Now when he splinters, he thanks his movement.
“Velocity is nice, it lets you get away with more,” Motte said. “You can maybe throw it down the middle and sneak it by someone, whereas with 91, 92, you give it down the middle they’re gonna (hit it) farther, quicker.”
Motte’s resurgence is a welcome addition to a Cardinals bullpen currently in flux. Fifty-seven games into the season, and really only one reliever — closer Trevor Rosenthal — has remained in his preseason role.
Martinez’s mental lapses and struggles against lefthanded hitters have booted him from the eighth inning, although probably not as drastically as his fourth-inning appearance Sunday may suggest. Kevin Siegrist is still on the disabled list, though his forearm tightness is improving. Sam Freeman’s slight emergence in Siegrist’s absence is encouraging, but he’s hardly Matheny’s most trusted arm. Randy Choate has been inconsistent.
Motte and Pat Neshek are the only two veteran righthanders Matheny has at his disposal. Neshek has been so good (0.73 ERA in 27 games) that he’s grabbed the eighth-inning role from Martinez.
If Motte continues to throw as he has, he could make his case to wrestle it away for himself, too.
“He’s getting outs,” Matheny said. “He’s been able to execute in some tough counts. He’s bouncing back well.”