MILWAUKEE • The Cardinals will give closer Edward Mujica a chance to rest and reset while turning this week to other pitchers to audition for his influential role as October approaches.
Mujica, who has 37 saves this season, sent the Cardinals into extra innings twice last week when he could not secure a victory. The righty has converted only two of his five save opportunities this month, and he has recently described fatigue as a reason for his erratic results. The Cardinals said their closer situation is “fluid” as this week begins until a bullpen strained by extra innings and new uncertainty settles and a ninth-inning answer emerges.
“Right now, it’s not getting it done,” general manager John Mozeliak said Saturday afternoon at Miller Park. “As far as just having somebody labeled our closer right now, we cannot just do that. … A lot of times you just get thrown into the fire and find out. A week away from October, you don’t want to start rethinking your club all of a sudden. But sometimes you do. You make adjustments or you go home.”
Manager Mike Matheny said availability and matchups will guide his immediate plans for the ninth inning. Two clear options are rookie Trevor Rosenthal, who has been the Cardinals’ eighth-inning reliever all season, and John Axford, the former Milwaukee closer who the Cardinals acquired in late August.
When the Cardinals lost closer Jason Motte to an elbow injury in March, Matheny immediately named Mitchell Boggs as the replacement. This list of potential replacements has grown since then, but Matheny also indicated Saturday that the need for a designated closer is less, even with a playoff run looming.
“I think our team needed a guy to fill that role right away,” Matheny said. “Right now, this is more about us winning right here as a group and each guy doing their part, less about roles. I think the guys get that. … Look at last year, we had seven-eight-nine (innings). Get us through six and we knew exactly who was pitching. That was enjoyable. That’s not what we have this year. We have a lot of guys down there who can do the job. We’ve just got to put them in situations where they can get it done.”
Mujica, a free agent at the end of the season, took over the closer role after Boggs faltered early in the season. When he converted his 35th save of the season, Mujica had a 1.73 ERA, had held opponents to a .200 average, and had 43 strikeouts and only three walks. In his eight appearances since, Mujica has allowed seven earned runs in 6 2/3 innings (9.45 ERA) and walked two batters to only three strikeouts. He said the release point on his best pitch, a split-finger changeup, had drifted on him.
Matheny said part of the move was to “give him more time” off.
Mozeliak said he could not answer Saturday whether Mujica would get a chance to return to the role, though time is short with only seven games remaining in the regular season.
“The end game is we have to figure out a different strategy,” Mozeliak said. “That’s what we’re going to do. The key part of all this is we’re in a close situation and in the next few days it’s going to be somebody else. It’s not about excuses, it’s about results.”
This is déjà vu for the Cardinals.
In 2006 and 2011, both seasons that ended with a World Series title, the Cardinals made a late-season change in the ninth inning. In 2006, Jason Isringhausen sustained a hip injury that turned rookie Adam Wainwright into the closer for October. In 2011, Fernando Salas saved the Cardinals from ninth-inning distress in the same way Mujica did this year. Salas also was exhausted by season end and Motte became the closer for the team’s title run through the fall.
“I don’t think many things go exactly as you design them,” Matheny said. “If you’re going to prioritize — would you like to see the back end of your bullpen tidy? The answer is absolutely. Can you win without it being so? I believe, absolutely. We just have to have the young guys … continue to prove that. In the mean time, we’re going to try and get Chief right. We’ll see how it all plays out.”
CRAIG DOUBTFUL this week
Cardinals cleanup hitter Allen Craig will be re-evaluated at the end of this week by a foot and ankle specialist, leaving in doubt his ability to contribute during the regular season. Asked if Craig would miss the remainder of the regular season – which concludes a week from Sunday at Busch Stadium – Mozeliak said, “Probably.” Craig injured ligaments in his left foot during the first week of September. He remains in a protective boot, which he will wear until at least the re-evaluation. If cleared for baseball activities after the re-evaluation, the Cardinals will consider sending Craig to Jupiter, Fla., where he can face live pitching.
After Carlos Martinez’s first two pitches in the 10th inning went wild, catcher Yadier Molina trotted out to the mound for a stern conversation with the rookie. Martinez fired strikes and claimed his first save after the talk. Matheny joked he needed to learn what Molina told the young righty, who turned 22 on Saturday. “He wanted to make me a pitcher, not a thrower,” Martinez said Molina told him. … Oscar Taveras (ankle surgery) has started his physical therapy in Jupiter, Fla. … Atlanta and Cincinnati have had scouts, including two former Cardinals’ employees, at recent games to evaluate the Cardinals as a potential postseason foe. … Sunday’s game was moved to the season finale of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball because it was one of three games earmarked as a possibility this past winter as an option for today. The other two did not feature compelling or contending teams, so the Cardinals-Brewers game was selected.