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Cards

Change is good for Mujica, Cards

Through the raucous celebration and sprays of champagne that followed the Cardinals’ shocking National League division series-clinching win last October in Washington, reliever Edward Mujica spotted general manager John Mozeliak in a narrow hallway off the clubhouse, observing from a relatively dry distance.

Mujica walked over to the suited executive, not to douse him but to toast him.

“Hey Mozeliak,” the righty said. “Thank you for trading for me.”

The thanks flowed both ways.

The Cardinals fished Mujica out of a double dip of obscurity – he was a middle reliever in Miami – and asked him to fill their biggest need in the bullpen. In a straight swap for first-round pick Zack Cox last July, Mujica was the least recognizable of the names. But the Cardinals’ scouts and analytics suggested that the righty had the stats, the temperament, the experience and, yes, the pitch to mend their gap in the late innings.

Liberated from the Marlins, Mujica saved the seventh inning for the Cardinals. What he’s done for an encore is even more essential: He’s saved games.

“When he is there and that need is there (last season), the light bulb goes on,” said Mike Jorgensen, the Cardinals’ special assistant to the general manager who scouted Mujica and had reports on him dating back to 2009. “He’s a good fit all the way around. He’s one of those guys in the small circle of scouts and ball clubs that we know is a valuable guy to the club. But he’s not The Guy. He can do all these different things and our need was that guy.”

Mujica, who turns 29 next month, had a 1.03 ERA and 18 holds – the setup equivalent of a save – in 29 appearances for the Cardinals last season. In 22 of those appearances, he pitched the seventh inning and 16 of his holds came shuttling a lead from the s ixth inning to Mitchell Boggs in the eighth. Mujica avoided arbitration when he signed a one-year, $3.2-million deal to return this season, and he figured to remain in the seventh before reaching free agency this winter. That was the plan. Then Jason Motte’s elbow frayed. Then Boggs’ results did. The Cardinals, adrift again in the late innings, went to Mujica for a second time in nine months for a steadying hand.

The unheralded righty pitched scoreless ninths for three saves in three days during the Cardinals’ sweep in Washington last week. One save took him all of three pitches. His four saves entering the weekend series against Pittsburgh doubled his career total as it calmed the Cardinals late-game unrest.

“He’s a veteran who has that experience in a lot of different roles and is comfortable in a lot of different roles. That’s what we needed,” Mozeliak said Friday. “When his stuff is on, it’s very good. When is stuff is on, he can handle any inning he gets.”

Mujica’s stuff has matured as he has through more than 300 big-league games with a total of four different organizations. As a youth in Venezuela, Mujica said he was a 175-pounder whipping fastballs at 87 mph. A scout approached him during one tryout with one request: “Let me see your hands,” he said. The scout took stock of the size of the teen’s hands and nodded. He had big hands. He’d throw harder.

Mujica advanced as a fastball-slider pitcher in the Cleveland organization until one day in 2006 when a pitching coach asked if he would consider a split-finger fastball. Mujica tried the splayed-finger grip.

“Didn’t do anything for me,” he said.

But before reporting to spring training in 2009, a spring that saw him traded to San Diego, Mujica started working on a changeup. That changeup morphed quickly into something else. Not only did it have a changeup’s misdirection, but it also had a steep drop. The grip wedged ball in his hand with his index finger and ring finger on the outside, and his middle finger crossing the seams — like a three-tine fork. He calls it a changeup. Teammates now call it a split-finger. It could be a split-change. In his reports through the years, Jorgensen refers to it by all three names at least once, he said.

Word was out last summer that Miami wanted to shed salary and while bigger names like Hanley Ramirez moved, no Marlin was untouchable. Mujica’s improving stats against lefties and his low walk rate drew the Cardinals statistically to him. The righty’s 1.50 walks-per-nine-innings-pitched were the third lowest of any reliever since 2009 entering this year. Jorgensen noted the off-speed pitch in reports that ended often with this note: he could help the Cardinals.

“He doesn’t have that knock-your-eyes-out stuff,” Jorgensen said. “But he has that pitch, whatever he calls it. He can throw it virtually every pitch.”

It took the Cardinals to make that happen.

When Mujica joined the Cardinals last year during a series against Colorado, he asked then-bullpen coach Dyar Miller if he could see the reports on the Rockies’ hitters. Miller said he didn’t need to bother. Catcher Yadier Molina had read them. Follow Yadi, Miller advised. Mujica did, and it didn’t take long for Molina to exploit the split-change. Last April, with the Marlins, Mujica threw the split a third of the time. This April, 60 percent of his pitches have been the split-change, according to BrooksBaseball.net. In his three-pitch save Tuesday against the Nationals, all three pitches were split-changes.

Mujica once told his friend Randy Choate, a teammate in Miami and now with the Cardinals: “I threw 43 changeups in a row.”

Choate said Mujica was joking.

He probably wasn’t.

Other times he certainly is. When Mozeliak completed the trade that sent former first-round pick Cox to Miami, he received a few calls from other general managers. They didn’t compliment the pitcher Mozeliak landed. They complimented the person. Mujica has been described by former teammates as one of the funniest they’ve played alongside. They call him “Chief,” a nickname given him by a Marlins executive who thought Mujica, pronounced MOO-Hee-Ka, sounded like Mohican.

“Chief” recently saw some metal stakes bundled and nestled in the corner of a bullpen. He grabbed one, held it straight up like an epee and proceeded to shadow fence. When Choate started eating a Three Musketeers candy bar last week, Mujica raised his eyebrows and pantomimed his swordplay with a wink toward the candy bar.

Mujica was thrilled to show his teammates the 1980s-style telephone handset he purchased in Washington that plugged into his iPhone. On a bus ride back to the hotel last week, he had his 9-month-old daughter, Brianna, on FaceTime and was coaxing her to smile.

“Princesita,” he said in Spanish, lilting as only dads can. “Princesita.”

Soon Joe Kelly and others joined in, a chorus of “little princess.”

“He doesn’t take anything too seriously,” Choate said. “That doesn’t mean he gets on the field and he’s joking around. He’s focused. But his lighthearted attitude is perfect for (closing).”

Mujica described how he struggled in Miami with a clubhouse that “didn’t have any energy.” He was revived when he arrived and the Cardinals had a role in the seventh for him. Whether it was how they used him or how Molina had him utilize the pitch, Mujica said the Cardinals filled him with confidence.

As the current answer at closer, Mujica gets to return to the favor.

“Confidence. It’s all confidence,” the righty said. “I don’t know what the other players think, but for me it’s confidence. They say, ‘Hey, Mujica, be ready for this inning.’ They give me an inning, whatever inning it is, and they trust me with that inning. I’ll be ready for it.”

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