Weekend notes: Mujica leads journeymen closers

Cardinals veteran filling void nicely for injured Motte, ineffective Boggs

By Tracy Ringolsby
5/11/2013 3:20 P.M. ET

ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals fireballer Jason Motte, who led the National League in saves with 42 last year, is scheduled for Tommy John surgery on Monday. Mitchell Boggs, who was tabbed as the St. Louis closer coming out of Spring Training due to Motte's elbow issues, was shipped to Triple-A last week.
Trevor Rosenthal, who took the baseball public by storm with his 100-mph fastball and a postseason in which he struck out 15 of the 30 batters he faced, is still getting his feet wet in a setup role.
So who has become the saving grace for a Cardinals team that has a best-in-baseball record of 22-12?
Does the name Edward Mujica ring a bell?
Maybe not, but Mujica's becoming a household name in Cardinals country, and the poster boy for a growing number of journeymen relievers who have stepped into ninth-inning roles.
There were 12 relievers who entered Saturday with at least nine saves this season. There were some mainstays, like Jim Johnson (14-for-14 in Baltimore), and Mariano Rivera (13-for-13 with the Yankees), but six of the 12 are journeymen who have become overnight sensations.
"There is something to be said for a guy who has been around,'' said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "They have battled to survive in the big leagues. They have that 'nothing-to-lose' attitude.''
And they sort of evolve into that ninth-inning role, without a lot of fanfare, which eliminates initial expectations.
In St. Louis, for example, when Motte was sidelined during the spring, Matheny initially announced that Boggs would assume the closer's role. In his first seven appearances, however, he was 1-for-3 in save opportunities, gave up nine runs in 6 2/3 innings and was moved first into a diminished bullpen role and eventually sent to Memphis.
Then came the decision to go to a committee, and after Mujica got his first opportunity on April 18, he became the chairman. He's 9-for-9 in save situations, has a 1.93 ERA and has allowed a .160 opponents' batting average.
Not too shabby, considering Mujica came into the season having converted only four of 17 save opportunities during seven previous seasons in which he split time with five different teams.
Mujica, however, is not an isolated case.
Pirates closer Jason Grilli, tied for the Major League lead converting 14 of 14 save opportunities, converted only five of 11 save opportunities in his first 10 big league seasons, spent with six teams.
Giants closer Sergio Romo is 26-for-29 in save situations since stepping in last year for the injured Brian Wilson after converting only three of eight in his first four big league seasons.
Rockies closer Rafael Betancourt is 9-for-9 this year, and 40-for-47 since the start of last year after converting only 27 of 60 opportunities his first nine big league seasons.
Blue Jays righty Casey Janssen has converted 31 of 34 since the start of last season after earning nine saves in 16 chances in his first four big league seasons.
Quick hits
Young Cardinals right-hander Shelby Miller not only one-hit the Rockies on Friday night, but he became only the fourth pitcher since 1974 to give up a hit to the first batter of a game (Eric Young Jr.) and then retire the next 27 batters.
Nationals fans have shown they will respond to success. Washington went into the weekend with the largest attendance increase in the big leagues. The Nationals averaged 31,813 fans in their first 18 home games, up 6,481 from a year ago. At the other extreme, Marlins attendance is down 10,994, one of six teams that have seen a drop of 5,000 or more tickets sold per game. The other five are Milwaukee, Minnesota, Boston, the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia.
The league-wide surge in strikeouts brings back memories of 1984, Steve Balboni's first season in Kansas City. He lockered next to Hal McRae, and after a September game there was a bottle of champagne on ice in front of Balboni's locker. Why? "He struck out for the 100th time tonight,'' McRae said. "You know how good you have to be to strike out 100 times?'' Balboni recently explained that McRae did that every year Balboni was with Kansas City, except one.
"We were in Boston,'' said Balboni. "I had 96 strikeouts and we were facing Clemens. He had it on ice before the game.''
The Blue Jays and Angels have struggled thus far and it begins with starting pitching. While the Astros' rotation entered Saturday with the highest ERA in the Majors (5.99), the Blue Jays were second at 5.66, the A's were third at 5.10 and the Angels fourth at 5.04. The rotation situation with the A's and Angels helps explain why the Rangers are the only American League West team with a winning record.
Guillermo Quiroz's walk-off, 10th-inning, pinch-hit home run for the Giants last Saturday ended the longest homerless streak in the big leagues at 1,784 days. Luke Montz of the A's assumed the homereless distinction, but not for long. He homered last Sunday, ending his streak at 1,679 days. So now the honor belongs to Twins outfielder Wilkin Ramirez, who has gone longer without a big league home run than any active player. He went into Saturday having gone 1,452 days without a big league home run.
Ramirez homered for the Tigers against the Rangers on May 20, 2009, in his third career at-bat. It's not like he has had a lot of opportunities, however. Ramirez only has 70 big league plate appearances since, having spent the bulk of his time in the Minors. And since that home run for the Tigers, he has hit 70 Minor League home runs while spending time in the Detroit, Atlanta and Minnesota farm systems.
Out-of-left-field factoid of the week
Tuesday's postponement of the Tigers-Nationals game in Washington due to inclement weather was the 22nd postponed game of the season. There were just 21 such postponements last season.