Mujica takes to Cage as easily as new role
Cardinals' closer recounts career highlights with fans in chat at Citi Field
NEW YORK -- On April 13, 2009, right-handed reliever Edward Mujica -- then a member of the Padres -- entered a tied game in the bottom of the fifth to face the Mets' powerful cleanup hitter, Carlos Delgado. Mujica forced Delgado to fly out to center field, became the pitcher of record and was awarded the win in the inaugural regular-season game at Citi Field.
Four years later, Mujica was back in Queens, but with a new club -- and a much bigger role.
After bouncing around the Majors -- and spending the past seven seasons with different roles on five teams -- Mujica is thriving in St. Louis as the main man in the 'pen, having converted all 18 of his save opportunities this year entering Wednesday's game with the Mets.
"It's been unbelievable for me this year -- I just started the year in the seventh inning, and [manager] Mike [Matheny] just gave me the opportunity to throw in the ninth inning," said Mujica, who joined the Edward Jones Chatting Cage from Citi Field. "And I just have a lot of fun right now throwing that inning because we are doing very well."
After notching 42 saves for the Cardinals last season, Jason Motte sustained a season-ending elbow injury in March, during Spring Training. Setup man Mitchell Boggs was subsequently elevated to the ninth-inning role but struggled in April before being sent down to Triple-A Memphis.
So Matheny turned to Mujica as his closer.
The right-hander had been a serviceable reliever in his career, entering 2013 with a 3.92 ERA in 316 games. In save situations, however, he had converted only four of his 17 opportunities.
But on April 18 in Philadelphia, Matheny called on Mujica in the bottom of the eighth inning with runners on first and second, for a four-out save.
"I am just trying to calm down a little bit and get out of that inning," Mujica said.
But Mujica did more than that, responding to a challenge that even the most experienced closers often struggle to embrace, striking out Laynce Nix to end the eighth, then stranding two in the ninth for his first save of the season. From that point on, Mujica has been the Cardinals' closer.
Last season, Mujica was dealt from the Marlins to the Cardinals at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, and he thrived.
"[Matheny] gave me pretty good confidence," said Mujica, who pitched to a 1.03 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP over 29 games with the Cardinals in 2012. "He told me, 'Hey, Mujica, you've got the seventh.' I just went right after it."
This year in the seventh inning, instead of pitching, Mujica is in the bullpen stretching and beginning to focus on what part of the lineup he is going to face at the end of the game.
Mujica enjoys closing, but he likes to work quickly. When he talks about the difference between the middle innings and closing, he mentions the need to get outs quickly. But the 29-year-old has had a long journey from Venezuala to the back of the Cardinals' bullpen.
Mujica got his start in baseball in his home country of Venezuela. He began playing at the age of 3, then closely followed the careers of his idols, Johan Santana and Freddy Garcia, who were also from Venezuela.
"Back in the day, when I was young, [they were] the two guys," Mujica said.
Mujica was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 2001 at the age of 16.
"One guy from the Cleveland Indians saw me pitching, and he told me, 'You have an opportunity,'" Mujica said. "They just got a couple of scouts, and they saw me pitching. They signed me right away."
Mujica was called up by the Indians in 2006 and appeared in 10 games. He made the same number of appearances in '07 and increased his workload to 33 games in '08. But he also made 84 appearances in the Minors in that span, bouncing from the big league club to Cleveland's Triple-A affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons.
Mujica was then traded to the Padres, with whom he spent two years before being dealt to the Marlins, and then again, finally, to the Cardinals.
"You know relievers are always thinking, 'One day, I'd like to be a closer,'" Mujica said. "I was thinking about that a couple of years ago, but they gave me the opportunity, and I'm just trying to put myself in that situation and prepare for that."
Because he has experienced success in the role, Mujica wants to remain a closer.
"Next year, I'm going to be a free agent," Mujica said. "If they want me to stay here -- or somebody else, if they need a closer, that's what I would like to do."
With his emergence this season, Mujica has established himself as one of the most reliable closers in the game. And now, he is the guy young Venezuelans look up to, and the guy people thank for boosting their fantasy teams.
"It was crazy for me, because years before, nobody told me that," Mujica said. "But right now, we have been doing a pretty good job and almost everybody has got me on their teams."