Less than two months removed from a time when he felt the bullpen was going to be a pillar for the team, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak described this week how when Jason Motte’s elbow gave way there was a “domino effect” in the bullpen.
When the closer fell, others tumbled too.
It turns out the opposite may also be true. A rising closer lifts all arms.
Edward Mujica, “Chief” to his teammates, earned his 12th save in 12 chances when he pitched a perfect ninth inning to close the Cardinals’ 7-6 victory Friday at Busch Stadium against Milwaukee. Ascending from the seventh inning to take control of the Cardinals’ vacated and convulsing ninth, Mujica has not only moved into the league leaders in saves but also helped calm what only a few weeks ago was the least-steady bullpen in baseball.
“I think it’s a great compliment that he’s made right now to do this,” manager Mike Matheny said. “It’s been big – obviously, that’s an understatement – for him to step in. We didn’t know which way this was going to go.”
Mujica took over the ninth on April 18 – a month ago today – and since has been unflappable in the role of closer. Six of his 12 saves have come with him entering the game with a one-run lead. Of the 41 batters he’s faced since assuming the role of closer, Mujica has retired 36. He faced three batters Friday night and retired all three, increasing his consecutive streak to 16 consecutive batters without allowing one to reach base. He has yet to walk a batter in his 12 innings as closer. Eight times he’s faced the minimum batters to collect the save.
By answering the Cardinals’ biggest question in the ninth, Mujica has allowed others to fill into roles around him. That has elevated the bullpen as a whole.
When the Cardinals made the first of their moves to reboot the bullpen – assigning lefty Marc Rzepczynski to Class AAA on April 29 – the relievers had a 6.08 ERA, the worst in the majors. In the 17 games since that move, the Cardinals have shaved that ERA down to 4.76. They have climbed out of the lowest spot in the majors and are steadily inching out of the lowest third. When last the Cardinals saw the Brewers, the roles ahead of Mujica were just starting to take shape.
Matheny was still experimenting with the late-game recipe.
On Friday, the Brewers saw the bullpen hold fast to a one-run lead with a relay of relievers that Matheny has increasingly used in tight spots.
Rookie Seth Maness, who made his debut against the Brewers earlier this month, has shown a proficiency when entering the inning with runners on base. He took over in the sixth inning with the tying run on base and was able to keep Jaime Garcia’s start from capsizing on the Cardinals. Maness has inherited five runners on base this season in six appearances, and he’s yet to allow one to score. Maness pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings Friday night. He then gave way to Trevor Rosenthal for the eighth, his customary inning. Rosenthal collected his 12th hold of the season and threw his ninth consecutive outing without allowing an earned run.
Both have had to learn on the go in the roles.
Maness, a starter by development, has reduced the time he needs to warm up, saying Friday that as a starter he had “five days to get prepared.” As a fireman for the team, he may have only five batters to prepare. He needs fewer pitches to get warm, and has started settling into a routine that gears up for possible matches a couple innings ahead of when they will happen. Matheny has stayed with Rosenthal in the eighth through his early rockiness, and the faith has been rewarded. That was on display Friday.
Rosenthal entered the game in the eighth inning set to face the middle of the Brewers’ order and two hitters who have owned him. Combined, Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez were five for five against the Cardinals’ righty entering Friday’s game.
Rosenthal struck out Ramirez and with the help of Yadier Molina’s throw to second got Braun trying to steal second for a double play. He attacked both with his changeup, a pitch he is using more assertively for a different look.
“I trust my stuff and I trust Yadi,” Rosenthal said. “I’m trying something different a little, I guess. I’m figuring out if there are other ways to do it.”
That also described what the Cardinals did.
They tried something different. And they continue to look at new ways to address the bullpen. The Cardinals are considering whether it is best to have rookie Carlos Martinez in the majors, where he is being used sparingly, or put him back in the minors to start. More changes to the bullpen and the return of Mitchell Boggs are likely.
For now, affirmed roles like Rosenthal’s and fresh arms like Maness’ have added to a bullpen now built around Mujica’s emergence in the ninth.
The Cardinals’ reliever revival starts where it ends.
“He’s done a really good job of taking ahold of that role and it seems like no matter what innings he’s pitching he’s done really well,” Rosenthal said. “It’s huge that you can have a guy you can lean on, like. There were times when we were all struggling and he was there, just continuing to do what he’s always done.”