Mujica out as closer; Cards go with committee
MILWAUKEE -- After attempting to let Edward Mujica right himself while continuing to pitch as the team's closer, the Cardinals will, at least temporarily, unplug Mujica from the ninth inning and fill the void with a committee of candidates.
The shift in closer plans was explained by both manager Mike Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak on Saturday, a day after Mujica squandered a two-run, ninth-inning lead. A day earlier, he had blown a save in Colorado. Mujica, though he has 37 saves this season, converted only two of his last five chances and had been scored upon in six of his last 11 appearances.
"A week away from October, you don't want to have to be rethinking your club all of a sudden. But sometimes you do," Mozeliak said. "You make adjustments or you go home. ... From our fan base perspective, they just want to know if we're thinking about it. We are thinking about it, and we know we have to do something different."
This is hardly the first closer conundrum the Cardinals have had this season. Mitchell Boggs opened the year closing games after Jason Motte's spring injury, but Boggs lasted less than three weeks in the role. That was when Mujica stepped in and provided immediate and sustained stability in the back end of the bullpen.
Now, Mujica is the one needing the lift.
"I'll be comfortable with whatever we have to do to win," Matheny said. "In an ideal situation, we have everybody throwing the ball well and we can figure things out from there. Right now, we have to help get one of our guys right and do what we have to do to win up until then."
The Cardinals are not placing the closer designation on anyone in the bullpen right now -- and there is no guarantee that one pitcher will assume the majority of the save opportunities as the Cards make their final push to October. Candidates to close include Trevor Rosenthal, who has thrived as the eighth-inning set-up man; Kevin Siegrist, who has a 22-inning scoreless streak and a 0.49 ERA; and John Axford, who led the league in saves with the Brewers in 2011.
Who Matheny calls upon to close on a given night will depend upon recent individual workloads and game situations. He said, too, that he won't hesitate to begin the postseason with this committee approach.
"Right now, this is more about us winning right here as a group, and it's about each guy doing his part," Matheny said. "It's less about roles. I think the guys get that. They're going to do whatever they have to do to give us a chance. It might be a little different role than they've had before, a little different situation or inning. But I encourage them to keep doing what they've been doing and not change much as far as their approach."
Added Mozeliak: "I'm not in a panic mode."
That's because this organization has been in this spot before. In 2006, the Cardinals lost closer Jason Isringhausen to a hip injury in September. A rookie by the name of Adam Wainwright stepped in to save a pair of games during the final week of the season and held that role as the Cardinals played through October and to a World Series championship.
Five years later, eight different pitchers earned at least one save during the regular season. That included nine by Motte, who unofficially took the closer reins in September. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series that fall, too.
Finding a fit for the ninth inning isn't the only task at hand for the Cards in the coming days. They also want to get Mujica right. The organization isn't ruling out the possibility that Mujica could eventually work his way back into a late-inning role, but even if he doesn't, the Cardinals would like for him to still be an asset in the 'pen.
Mujica was ruled unavailable on Saturday after pitching in three straight games. Matheny noted, too, that perhaps several consecutive days off could benefit the right-hander, who has talked recently about feeling fatigued. Matheny met with Mujica on Saturday to discuss the club's immediate plans.
"He understands that there are times you just have to fight your way through," Matheny said. "He understands where we are as a club. He understands where we are in our season. And he's been a terrific team guy all the way across the board in how he's led our guys and been there for the young players. Everything he's done for us has been top-shelf as a pro. He knows where we are right now, and we're trying to get him right."
How the Cardinals balance giving Mujica rest with putting him back on the mound in spots where he can regain confidence will be tricky with only seven regular-season games remaining.
"The challenge is time and when -- in terms of what situations are ideal for getting yourself back on track," Mozeliak said. "It's not an easy thing to do, but it's something that the staff wants to think about and strategize. Obviously, the key thing is to win baseball games, especially now.
"I think from a physical standpoint, he's just fine. I would imagine fatigue sets in with a lot of people at this time of year, especially someone that's gone through what he has. It's not really abnormal, but at this time of year, it's not about excuses. It's about results. That's what the focus has to be."