La Russa not bequeathing closer title
Motte likely to get most opportunities, but manager firm with stance
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- All signs point to Jason Motte as the man who will pitch most often with a lead in the ninth inning for the Cardinals this year. All signs, that is, except for the proclamation of the man who will make that decision.
Manager Tony La Russa continues to reiterate that neither Motte nor any other pitcher will be named his closer before Opening Day. But the save chances have to go to somebody. And if Spring Training is any indication, Motte will get the plurality of them, if not the majority, in the early going.
"I'm not going to get into that," La Russa said when asked if Motte will be his primary closer. "One of the reasons you say you're not naming a closer is you're not naming a closer. You just play the games, and everybody comes to the park thinking, 'Hey, I might be the guy.'"
But if everybody comes thinking that, it's a little more of a reality for Motte. He's finished nine games this spring, more than any other three relievers on the roster combined. And he's earned it, by throwing hard-to-hit pitches in the strike zone. Motte has struck out 16 against one walk in 11 1/3 innings. He's forced his way into contention for those ninth-inning chances by simply pitching that well.
"Even to be considered for it, for him to say that, it means a lot for me," Motte said.
The hard-throwing right-hander entered the spring as part of a four-way competition, with Ryan Franklin, Chris Perez and Josh Kinney. Perez was optioned to Triple-A Memphis on Monday, ensuring Motte's place on the Major League roster as well as cementing his position as a heavy favorite to pitch most often in the ninth.
He's still refining his second and third pitches -- a slider and a changeup, respectively -- but they're coming along. Motte has gotten strikeouts on the slider this spring, an excellent sign. It doesn't need to be a dominating pitch. Mostly what it needs to be is something that keeps hitters from sitting on his high-90s fastball.
"My slider was 'eh' today," Motte said after allowing two hits in a scoreless ninth inning on Tuesday. "Last time I threw a couple good ones, couple bad ones. But I feel like that's a whole lot better pitch than it was last year."
It's caught La Russa's attention, as has nearly everything Motte has done this spring.
"I think he's kept his delivery together," La Russa said. "Generally he's thrown quality strikes. And when he's overthrown one, he's come back and gotten back on it, made the adjustment. His breaking ball has improved, although the other day he threw a poor one. But overall, there's all kind of examples you can use to say his breaking ball has improved. And his third pitch is coming along as well."
Now Motte needs to do all of it regularly, in games that count. That's one concern about Motte -- how he will fare when hitters get more of a look at his unusual delivery and relatively limited repertoire. Another is health. Motte is 26 and an inexperienced pitcher with just 175 2/3 professional innings to his name.
La Russa said, however, that he won't handle Motte all that much differently from his other more experienced relievers. His age and inexperience will not add up to a kid-gloves treatment.
"If he throws nine pitches on Friday and he did a good job, then he can come back Saturday," La Russa said. "If he throws 19, you probably don't pitch him Saturday. I don't want to exhaust the possibilities -- just try to use good judgment. But I think that's true for all the guys, because you're going to play for six months and hopefully October. Hopefully, you do the same thing for every pitcher, so that all season long, their arms have got something in them."
Motte doesn't recall pitching three consecutive days, but he said he's pitched four out of five days in the Minors. And he's happy to give a shot to pitching as often as he's asked. As for the closer's job, he said he's paid some attention to the patterns of use, but he's trying not to get too caught up in it.
"Yeah, but no," Motte said, summing up the entire situation in three words.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.