By Jack Etkin
On Wednesday night at Coors Field, St. Louis Cardinals closer Edward Mujica was bobbing and weaving his way through the ninth inning, the drama building. Colorado Rockies fans were standing and cheering, sensing a storybook ending.
Todd Helton, in one of his final games before retiring at the end of the season, came to bat with the bases loaded and two out. The Cardinals were leading 4-3. Mujica threw three split-fingered pitches, got ahead of Helton 1-2 with those changeups and then threw a chest-high 93 mph fastball. It wasn't what Helton was expecting. He took a mighty swing... and missed, bringing Mujica his 37th save and sealing the 17th victory for Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright.
"That last pitch, it was like a thing of art," Wainwright said.
"It's unbelievable," Mujica said. "When we play away, you don't have nobody behind you."
It turned out that on Thursday, Mujica had three relievers behind him, none of whom Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had the vaguest notion of using when Mujica again took the mound in the ninth with a one-run lead. Helton led off and drove Mujica's second pitch, his patented split-fingered offering, but one that floated downward rather than tumbled, into the Rockies' bullpen in right-center, tying the score at 6.
Sam Freeman, Tyler Lyons and Fernando Salas followed Mujica to the mound as the game meandered into extra innings, the Rockies finally winning 7-6 in the 15th. After the 5-hour, 9-minute marathon, Matheny said, referring to Mujica, "It just didn't happen tonight. He's our guy. We just need him to keep making pitches."
Friday night in Milwaukee, Mujica again was unable to hold a two-run lead in the ninth, although the Cardinals won in the 10th. He told reporters before the game that the grind of closing had left him tired, which has affected his release point and taken some of the bite out of his changeup.
The blown save Thursday was just Mujica's fourth in 41 opportunities this season. But in eight September games, Mujica has as many saves (2) as blown saves (2) along with a 9.45 ERA and 15 hits allowed in 6 2/3 innings.
Until recently, his season has been a wonderful tale on a St. Louis team that entered Saturday with a two-game lead in the National League Central. And after the Cardinals' ninth-inning woes in April, Mujica has been a godsend. He's 2-1 with a 2.53 ERA in 63 games and has recorded a mere five walks (one intentional) against 46 strikeouts in 64 innings.
"We wouldn't be in the situation we're in right now, if he hadn't or someone hadn't jumped in and taken control of that position," Matheny said. "It's too big of a role."
And one that might be slipping from Mujica's grasp after he rather unexpectedly latched onto it five months ago.
Closer Jason Motte, who tied for the NL lead last year with 42 saves, was injured late in spring training and soon underwent Tommy John surgery.
The Cardinals turned to Mitchell Boggs, a successful setup man last year, to close games. Moving from the eighth to the ninth was like crossing a moat for Boggs. Over his first seven games of the season, he went 2-for-4 in save situations, and recorded an 11.37 ERA and a loss.
"Pitching the eighth inning last year, I pitched against the middle of the lineup many times," said Boggs, who was demoted to Triple-A Memphis in early May and ultimately has his contract purchased by the Rockies. "Those situations were just as important, and I handled those fine. Where I got in trouble is I felt like I had to be perfect. I wasn't trying to throw the ball through the wall. I was trying to nibble, trying to hit corners, not being as aggressive as I should have been and trusting my stuff, being the guy I was last year."
Mujica began the season slotted for the seventh inning. That was the bullpen niche the Cardinals needed filled and which he did perfectly last year for them. He allowed just three runs in 26 1/3 innings after being acquired from Miami on the July 31 trade deadline for minor league third baseman Zack Cox, a first-round disappointment whom the Cardinals had drafted 25th overall in 2010.
After Motte's injury, the Cardinals agreed upon Boggs to close, but pitching coach Derek Lilliquist mentioned to Matheny that Mujica had the potential to succeed in that role. A seed was planted.
"No. 1, he repeats everything he does in his delivery when he pitches," Lilliquist said, "so his command is great. No. 2, he's got a specialty pitch, and he's able to execute it in any situation.
"He's using his split more. When he's in the high-leveraged situations, he's executing that pitch down underneath the strike zone. When he's down underneath the strike zone, it's a great pitch, and it's actually a major league swing-and-miss pitch. It's like a modified changeup, but it's got tremendous down action."
That's when it's at its best, which hasn't been the case lately.
Mujica learned the pitch with Cleveland where he began his career in 2006. While with the Indians, he approached Johan Santana, a fellow Venezuelan and then the Minnesota Twins ace, and asked Santana how he threw his vaunted changeup. Santana showed Mujica, putting his thumb and index finger on the ball. Mujica made a slight modification, putting the ball between his thumb and index finger but leaving the tip of the finger off the ball.
"I use that pitch for any situation," Mujica said, "two strikes, first pitch for a strike."
He was mostly using that pitch in the anonymity of middle relief. Prior to this season, Mujica, 29, had four career saves in 316 appearances. But in 2011 with the then Florida Marlins, who acquired him after the 2010 season, Mujica's bullpen perspective changed and he acquired the nickname "Chief."
Jack McKeon took over as the Marlins manager at the mid-point of the 2011 season and dubbed Mujica "Chief."
Mujica said, "He came to me one day like, 'Hey, Mujica, I can't pronounce your name, but I think you're the Last of the Mujicas. I'm going to call you 'Chief.' OK? It's going to be easy for me.'
"I say, 'OK, sounds good.' "
In 2011, the Marlins moved Mujica into a setup role for closer Juan Carlos Oviedo, who was then playing under the assumed name of Leo Nunez and saved 36 games in 2011.
"After that I was thinking, I want to be a closer," Mujica said. "I want to see, how does it feel. It's unbelievable this year for me, because they give me the opportunity, then you know, I make it happen. They give me the ball in the ninth, and you know, I got pretty good success."
Little did Mujica know that would happen when Matheny sauntered up to him in the outfield in Pittsburgh on April 15 while Mujica was shagging fly balls during batting practice. One day earlier, Boggs had blown his second save in four chances. Matheny customarily gauges the readiness of his relievers daily with these chats and did that with Mujica, imparting one brief bit of news.
"He told me, 'You got the ball in the ninth tonight,' " Mujica said. "I say, 'OK, sounds good. I just thinking about one night. That situation in Philadelphia changed everything."
On April 18, after three games off, Mujica was summoned to pitch with two outs in the eighth and struck out Laynce Nix to end the inning with runners on first and second and the Cardinals leading 4-3.
Mujica gave up consecutive singles to start the ninth, putting runners on first and third. But he retired Kevin Frandsen on a grounder, putting runners on second and third. Then he struck out Jimmy Rollins and got Freddy Galvis to ground out. It was the first of 21 consecutive saves for Mujica before his first blown save July 4.
"It's exciting," Matheny said. "You just watch a guy really come into his own. He goes from being a guy who wasn't a setup guy, we bring him in really to fill a need in the seventh. He did a terrific job. But he goes into a completely different classification when he jumps into the ninth inning and starts doing the things that he's been doing."
As of late, what Mujica has been doing in the ninth is cause for concern. The final week of the regular season remains as the Cardinals try to enter the postseason as division winners. If September was not the start of an ill-timed steep decline that engulfs him, and Mujica is truly fortunate, he can hope for the opportunity to follow the ninth-inning path Sergio Romo took last year to sublime heights.
Romo became the San Francisco Giants closer during the 2012 season, and like Mujica moved up from a setup role to the ninth. Santiago Casilla had become the closer when Brian Wilson was injured at the outset of the season and underwent Tommy John surgery. But Casilla developed blister problems, paving the way for Romo.
He went 14-for-15 in save situations during the regular season, a prelude to a glorious October. Romo saved the deciding game in a Division Series. He got the final out in a non-save situation of the League Championship Series. And he saved the last game of the World Series. It was a memorable trifecta -- three game-ending pitches followed by three celebrations.
"I was able to take a step back and watch my whole team celebrate and smile," Romo said. "To know that I contributed in that smile, I was part of that, I was able to give that to them -- each time I cried because it matters so much to me."
Tears of happiness are one thing. The Cardinals have to decide what having Mujica close in October might bring.
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Jack Etkin has covered baseball since 1981 for the Kansas City Star, the Rocky Mountain News and, these days, for The Sports Xchange and Baseball America.