Changing closers doesn't have Cards in 'panic mode'
Precedent set on St. Louis' World Series-winning clubs late in '06, '11 seasons
MILWAUKEE -- There are valid reasons why the St. Louis Cardinals can approach an uncertain situation in their closer role with optimism.
First, the Cardinals have changed closers late in the season before, and they have won two World Series in the process. Not that this makes the Cards' closer situation any less stressful in 2013, but there is precedent on their side.
Adam Wainwright inherited the closer role in the last week of the 2006 season. Jason Motte took over the job in the last month of the 2011 season. The Redbirds won the World Series in both years.
Now, the Cardinals are removing incumbent closer Edward Mujica from that role, at least temporarily. For most of this season, Mujica has been a reason for the Cardinals' success. But Mujica has blown three of his last five save opportunities. He's also given up 11 hits over 4 1/3 innings in his last five appearances.
There is considerable built-in drama in this situation, not only in the results, but in the choice of which relief pitcher, or pitchers, will get the ninth-inning, close-game call for the Cardinals.
That drama was postponed Saturday night at Miller Park. There was no save situation after the Cardinals scored five runs in the eighth inning on their way to a 7-2 victory over the Brewers. The pitching story of this game for the first-place Cards was starter Lance Lynn, who settled in after a difficult first inning for his fourth straight quality start.
Both general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny said Saturday that the closer situation would be fluid in the immediate future. The timing is not fortuitous for this type of thing, with St. Louis trying to nail down a division title. But that leads to the second valid reason for optimism. The Cardinals have at least three viable options to close games.
"A week away from October, you don't want to be rethinking your club all of a sudden," Mozeliak said. "But sometimes you do, you make adjustments or you go home. We're not in a panic mode. I think we'll be fine.
"In terms of how we look at finishing a game in the next day or two it is really sort of open-ended. Just having somebody labeled as our closer right now, we can't do that."
"We've got guys who have been getting outs," Matheny said. "We're going to give guys opportunities and see who's able to help us out.
"It's more about us winning right here as a group. It's about each guy doing his part, less about roles. I think the guys get that. They're going to do whatever they need to do to give us a chance."
The three readily identifiable candidates for the job would include righties Trevor Rosenthal and John Axford and lefty Kevin Siegrist.
Rosenthal has tremendous stuff, has been highly successful in a setup role and is viewed as St. Louis' closer of the future. Using him in that spot could be seen as an acceleration of his inevitable promotion to the closer role.
Axford, recently acquired in a trade from Milwaukee, led the National League in saves two years ago with 46 for a Brewers team that won the NL Central. He still has the same imposing stuff, although erratic command earlier in the season had taken him out of the closer role with Milwaukee.
Siegrist has been a revelation for the Cardinals, compiling an ERA of 0.48, with 15 hits allowed in 37 1/3 innings over 41 appearances.
And if Mujica's recent problems can be sorted out by a combination of a period of rest, then some work in relatively low-pressure situations, he could be back in contention for the role.
"Everything he's done has been top-shelf, as a pro," Matheny said of Mujica.
A closer by committee, or any system short of a full-time closer, will lead to more second-guessing of the manager any time it doesn't convert a save situation. This prospect does not bother Matheny, but he recalls less complex times.
"Look at last year, we had seventh, eighth, ninth," the manager said. "You get us through six, we knew exactly who was pitching, I don't care if they had all lefties, all righties, or all switch-hitters. That was enjoyable.
"It's not what we have this year. But we have a lot of guys down there who can do the job. We've just got to put them in situations where they can get it done.
"I don't think many things in this game go as you design them. Can you win without the back end of your bullpen being tidy? I absolutely believe so ... as I believe our guys have continued to show that they can do things that people don't expect them to do."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.