Motte returning to mound with renewed energy, focus
Reliever out of action for little more than a year following surgery
ST. LOUIS -- Only twice in his career has Jason Motte actually intentionally stepped off the mound to absorb the moment. It goes against instinct to let the mind wander, think back to what has been, ahead to what could be, while entering the game to preserve a lead or, as Motte's most recent job description read, close games.
But Motte stole a few seconds from his concentration to soak in the magnitude of the occasion on an October night in 2011, shortly before he sealed the Cardinals' 11th World Series championship. He wouldn't be deliberate to take in the significance of an appearance again until he ran out from a Double-A bullpen 15 days ago.
Having spent months rehabbing from elbow surgery when no one else was watching and weeks pitching in extended spring games with only a handful of onlookers, the ovation Motte received upon taking the mound in front of a sellout crowd at Hammons Field in Springfield, Mo., made him pause.
It was a resounding welcome back.
"I got out there on the mound," Motte recalled, "and at one point looked around and thought, 'This is pretty cool.'"
Motte is poised to have another such moving moment this week.
The Cards activated Motte from the disabled list on Tuesday and optioned left-hander Sam Freeman to Triple-A Memphis. The transaction brings added experience to a bullpen needing a late-inning boost and will mark the ending point of his road back from Tommy John surgery. Motte is less than two weeks past the one-year anniversary of the procedure.
"He's worked really hard and the training staff put together a good plan and pushed him hard and he pushed hard," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "That's the only way you can come back from something like this. There's no guarantees, even though the numbers and statistics are getting better, there's no guarantees you're going to come back."
Motte's last meaningful pitch for the Cardinals came in the 2012 National League Championship Series. His last pre-surgery pitch came the next spring during a March 21 Grapefruit League outing against the Mets. On the bus ride back to the Cards' spring home, Motte felt an odd sensation in his elbow. He stepped off the bus and called his wife. Thus began a season lost to injury and a year gained through renewed perspective.
Motte will return to the Busch Stadium mound changed by more than just ligament replacement surgery. His last year has been a crusade to help bring support and awareness to cancer through furthering the work of his foundation and befriending cancer patients, many of them children. It gave Motte purpose when baseball wasn't there.
Motte intends to wear those new relationships with him, too, each time he pitches.
The colorful array of rubber wristbands creep up Motte's left arm, covered only by the long sleeve that he will wear over his arm while on the mound. There are at least a half dozen that Motte wears regularly, with what he estimates to be another 30 sitting in his truck.
"These are a daily reminder of why I do what I do, on the field and off the field," Motte said. "I wish I didn't wear any of these, to be honest. I don't have to wear any of them, but I wish nobody had cancer and we didn't have to worry about wearing wristbands for this or that. For me, it's a good daily reminder of the stuff people are going through."
Motte has one for his wife's grandfather, Lynn Doyle, whose battle with lung cancer was the genesis behind the creation of Motte's foundation. There is a wristband for Team Brandt, a young boy who lost his battle with cancer last summer, and Lindsay Ripley, a young lady in her 20s from the Kansas City area who Motte met during the 2013 World Series. Others are for a friend of John Mabry's family, young cancer patient Lane Goodwin and another boy, Carson.
"I'll just keep my sleeve down and I'll always have them with me," Motte said. "These are all people who have heard that news that they have cancer. Some have fought it and beat it. Some are still fighting. And some of them aren't with us anymore. It's a reminder everyday of what's really important."
Motte's work with cancer patients will continue, but his focus on pitching has once again taken priority. He made four Double-A and two Triple-A appearances (all scoreless) in preparation for his Major League return. Along the way, the Cardinals put Motte through the necessary tests of pitching on consecutive days and for multiple innings.
Motte passed each without issue. His velocity hasn't returned to pre-surgery numbers -- it is sitting more mid-90s, not high-90s -- though Motte believes that he has enough to get outs at the big league level.
Motte returns, too, with an undefined role. Trevor Rosenthal remains the club's closer, while Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist have carved a niche as Matheny's go-to setup men. If Motte can prove himself fully recovered and effective, he can pitch himself back into a high-leverage role, something that could benefit the Cards given Matheny's early overuse of his most trusted three relievers.
"I would assume, in a perfect world, we'd find situations where we can get him comfortable with the mound, comfortable with the atmosphere," Matheny said. "Seldom does it work out perfectly how we want it to. We'll watch to see how it plays out, but we're not afraid to throw him into a high-leverage situation."
Motte, who will become a free agent at year's end, hopes to close again one day. He led the NL with 42 saves in 2012, his first full season as the team's closer. But Motte also knows that pitching late in games once again has to be earned.
That is where, upon the end of one road, Motte's next journey will start.
"That's not my goal to just be like, 'Sweet. I made it back,'" Motte said. "[Adam Wainwright's] thought process when he had [Tommy John surgery] in '11 and came back in '12 wasn't just, 'I want to make it. I want to pitch.' He wanted to go out there and be the pitcher he was before. That's what I want to be. If that means closing, if that means whatever, it's just getting guys out regardless of when the time is that I'm pitching.
"The main thing now is my health and me being able to go out there and get guys out before we start talking about [roles]. We have to get here first. It's just getting back there on a big league mound and from there, getting me back to where I was before."
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.