Motte finds success as battery's other half
Cards' de facto closer began professional career as backstop
ST. LOUIS -- The summons came from Mark Riggins, then the Cardinals' Minor League pitching coordinator. Riggins led a 23-year-old catcher, already offensively challenged in the lower Minors, from the clubhouse to an office inside Bright House Field.
Jason Motte, unknowingly, walked right into an intervention.
He took a seat next to Derek Lilliquist, pitching coach for the Class A Advanced Palm Beach (Fla.) Cardinals, who had just traveled to Clearwater for a May game. Palm Beach manager Ron Warner and hitting coach Derrick May were there, too.
Motte doesn't remember the conversation in exact detail, though, as he recalled last Saturday, it went something like this: "You're going to be pitching."
Make no mistake, this was an order, not a suggestion. This was an already management-made determination that Motte, for the betterment of his career, was expected to embrace.
"As a pitching coach, I'm always looking for arm, and Jason always had such a great arm as a catcher," said Riggins, now the Cubs' pitching coach. "The biggest thing is always getting the guy to be on board.
"He said, 'Let's go for it.'"
With those words, Motte resurrected his flailing career.
He spent three days with Riggins in Clearwater, where the two simply talked in basics. Motte's experience on the mound had consisted of a few appearances on his 12-year-old Little League team and not a pitch since. Drafted in the 19th round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, Motte's path to the Majors was supposed to be as the other half of the battery.
A conversion that began on the backfields of Florida State League ballparks has led Motte here to the World Series, where his Cardinals begin a best-of-seven test against the Rangers at Busch Stadium on Wednesday. Motte's contributions can hardly be understated.
He became the de facto closer -- no, manager Tony La Russa has not presented Motte with any official title -- for the final month of the 2011 season. Motte converted nine out of 10 save opportunities during the Cardinals' frantic scramble up the Wild Card standings, and he has been lights-out this postseason.
In seven playoff games, Motte has surrendered one hit. He has four saves and seven strikeouts, the last of which sealed the Cardinals' trip back to the Fall Classic.
"It was one of those things, when I was out there, I didn't know what was going to happen," said Motte, who pitched the final inning of the Cardinals' 12-6 win over the Brewers to wrap up the National League Championship Series.
Motte said he watched from a restaurant with several teammates as the Rangers finished off the Tigers in the American League Championship Series the night before Game 6 against the Brewers. Watching Texas players celebrate, Motte said, gave him goosebumps.
"I was like, 'That had to be an awesome feeling,'" he said after the Cardinals earned a trip to the World Series. "And to be out there and be able to be in that situation tonight, [catcher Yadier Molina] throwing his hands up, I don't remember much after that but Yadi hugging me and me hugging him. Next thing I know, we're on the ground with everybody on the team standing over us. It was a great feeling."
For someone who said he would likely be teaching elementary school right now had it not been for that 2006 meeting, such a moment is truly remarkable.
Perhaps a fresh figure on the national stage, Motte showed signs five years ago that he could be on his way to such success, beginning with the fact that the right-hander had no reservations about immersing himself in the art of pitching.
That was surely an ideal and desired start.
There were also never questions about Motte's arm, which he regularly showed off when opposing baserunners tried to steal. As Riggins recalled: "The pitcher had to fall to the ground, or else they were going to get hit. You don't often see that."
Motte had the mentality, too. That let's-get-it-on aggressiveness, the fearlessness that often defines a closer. His experience as a catcher meant he was already adept at reading swings and approaches.
And, perhaps most surprisingly, Motte, from the beginning, could find the strike zone with relative ease.
"My control issues were worse than his were," said Dyar Miller, the current Cardinals Minor League pitching coordinator, who, himself, was a converted catcher turned Major League pitcher. "He could throw strikes right away. And most of the time, his strikes were in the bottom of the zone."
Motte made 29 appearances during the 2006 season and finished with a 3.69 ERA. He returned to Palm Beach as a pitcher in '07 and less than one month later was promoted to Double-A Springfield (Mo.).
Though Motte had earned a handful of promotions during his days as a catcher, this one was different. This one had been a product of his performance.
"It was the first time I had earned a chance to be called up," Motte said. "In years past, when I got called up to Double-A, it was because someone got hurt and, 'We need you to come up here for a week.'"
He was in Triple-A the next year and the big leagues by the end of it. On Opening Day 2009, Motte was called upon to close out the Pirates. La Russa's gamble turned out terribly as Motte converted a two-run lead into a two-run loss. Pittsburgh recorded three extra-base hits in the inning, including a bases-clearing one by Jack Wilson with two outs.
Wilson's game-winning knock came on a fastball -- the same pitch Motte had relied upon to get him through the previous September. Before throwing it, he actually shook off Molina -- who wanted the slider -- thinking he was already good enough as a one-pitch pitcher.
"It's one of those things that [stank] at the time, but you learn from your mistakes," Motte said. "I remember the hit. It had to happen. I learned a lot from it. I can't just throw fastballs down the middle."
Motte didn't get his next ninth-inning save opportunity until the following April, though the revelation presented through Wilson's hit turned out to be one of the more critical teaching points of Motte's career.
He refocused his energy on developing his offspeed pitches, which were, as is expected in a conversion case, much slower to develop. He also continued to work on a slider (some call it a cutter) that Miller had recommended he adopt. That same pitch had carried Miller to the Majors, in fact.
Motte learned to trust his catchers. And he learned to trust himself.
"This game will humble you in a heartbeat," he said. "I've learned more in these three years I've been up here than in the time that I was in the Minor Leagues."
Motte's 2010 season was a standout one, and he carried that success into this season. Pegged as a potential setup option, Motte found himself thrust back into the closer's role -- without the title, of course -- after La Russa had already shuffled through Ryan Franklin, Mitchell Boggs, Eduardo Sanchez and, most recently, Fernando Salas.
With Motte, the Cardinals found instant stability. Not to mention, the now 29-year-old sure has made a case for a permanent ninth-inning role next season -- and perhaps the appropriate title to go along with it.
"The biggest thing is he just allowed himself to do what he's done this year instead of trying to be this, trying to be that," said Lilliquist, now Motte's bullpen coach in St. Louis. "He lets it come to him. He takes each pitch for what it is. He takes each outing for what it is."
That's because he was given a second chance. Motte knows it, too. And that's precisely why he will continue to pitch with absolutely nothing to lose.
"Luckily for me, God's given me the opportunity to do this," Motte said. "My thing was, 'Just give me an opportunity.' When they did, I just told myself I'm going to give it everything I had."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.