posted on June 11, 2012 00:00
The St. Louis Cardinals dropped Sunday’s game to the Cleveland Indians 4-1, spoiling the great start from freshly called-up hurler Joe Kelly and losing two of three games in the Interleague series. But the big story of the day wasn’t Kelly’s performance, or the fact that the Cards could only muster one run, giving them a total of five on the weekend. It apparently was the showdown between Jason Motte and Chris Perez.
You know the backstory. The Cardinals had two promising, hard-throwing young pitchers coming up through their system. Both debuted with the big club in 2008. One was a converted catcher who seemed like he could throw a baseball through a wall. He was raw and his pitches didn’t move much, but man did he bring some heat. The other didn’t throw quite as hard, but he made up for it by having much more experience on the mound—and more of a repertoire. Both had quirky attitudes. Both seemed suited to inherit the closer role. But it isn’t often one team employs two closers. In 2009, the Cardinals were one of the best teams in all of baseball, and the powers that be thought they needed just one more piece to complete the puzzle. The Indians had the piece everyone wanted: Mark DeRosa. In return, they wanted one of the Cards’ young fireballers. They got Perez, and he became their closer—one of the best in the league and an All Star in 2011. Motte stayed in St. Louis, finally became the Cards’ closer for good during their run at the end of 2011, and threw the final pitches that clinched both the NLCS and World Series.
This weekend’s series between the Indians and Cardinals represented the first time Perez would return to Busch Stadium since he was traded. Perez is known to be outspoken; earlier this season he contrasted the sparse crowds in Cleveland with the packed houses in St. Louis. He commented on how tough it was to play for Tony La Russa. But it was little more than an intriguing side story between two teams desperate for wins as they try to climb back on top of their respective divisions.
Neither pitcher appeared in Cleveland’s 6-2 win Friday night. Saturday, the Cards carried a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning. Motte came in and pitched a perfect frame, sealing the win; Perez remained unused in the visitor’s bullpen. Sunday’s rubber game was knotted 1-1 after eight innings. Mike Matheny brought in Motte for the top of the ninth; he surrendered a hit, a walk, and a three-run homer. Perez then came in and nailed down the save and the series win for his team with a 4-1 victory.
Some may see this as Perez getting the last laugh against his old team, and at the expense of his former bullpen mate as a nice kicker; others may wonder if the Cards made the right choice in those trade discussions nearly three years ago. After all, Perez has been a successful closer for a few full years now; his save numbers were gaudy enough to earn him that All Star selection. And Motte has yet to pitch a full season as the closer for the Cards—which is not entirely his fault, but it is at least partially the reason his saves totals remain low.
But the numbers, in fact, do not lie.
Motte and Perez are fairly similar pitchers in stats outside of saves. Perez is a little younger; Motte has experience and success in some of the biggest games imaginable. A case can be made for why one is better than the other in one category or another. But remember, Motte is still waiting for that full-season shot as the closer. Maybe he earns 35 saves this year; is that what it takes to be considered successful? Sunday’s game wasn’t a save situation, but it was a loss pinned to Motte’s record. That it came with
Perez in the opposing bullpen is nothing but ironic timing. When evaluating body of work, Motte is a solid choice for closer and deserves the chance to prove it over a full year. Playing the “what if” game with Perez does no one any good. Plus—and I hate to keep going to the well on this one—if everything doesn’t fall exactly into place the way it did, the magic that was the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals does not happen. All the good and all the bad contributed to that run, including the bullpen nightmares and eventual passing of the torch to Motte.
So don’t look at the Cleveland Indians with envy after this series. The Cardinals have a fine closer in Jason Motte, and they have no reason to regret the trade that sent Chris Perez to The Tribe. Maybe in a perfect world, both pitchers are still wearing the Birds on the Bat and mowing down hitter after hitter, rendering any comeback after the seventh inning completely impossible. But this is the real world, the one where the Cardinals are the reigning World Series Champions with Motte as their closer. I’m pretty sure they made the right decision.
Chris Reed is a freelance writer who also appears on I-70 Baseball Saturdays and Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter @birdbrained.