The game was not important. The St. Louis Cardinals had clinched the poor-man's wild card the night before, and the Reds were already division champs. Heck, for this, their final regular-season game, the Cardinals featured a Triple-A lineup, with rookie Matt Carpenter batting cleanup. But after the team took the lead in the eighth inning, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny summoned his fireman, Jason Motte, to finish the game. With Motte recording all of the team's saves this year, who else would save it?
In wrapping up the final two outs of the win, Motte became only the seventh pitcher since writer Jerome Holtzman codified the save in 1960 (MLB officially adopted it in 1969) to ride to the rescue for all of his team's saves:
Year Team Pitcher Manager
2012 St. Louis CardinalsJason Motte Mike Matheny
2002 San Francisco GiantsRobb Nen Dusty Baker
1996 San Francisco GiantsRod Beck Dusty Baker
1974 Texas Rangers Steve Foucault Billy Martin
Only recently did Motte even realize that he was the team's saves lone ranger. "Zep (fellow reliever Marc Rzepczynski) told me the other day," he said. When asked if he knew how many closers had accomplished the "feat," Motte came nearly as close as one of his riding fastballs in on the batter's hands: "I don't know -- five?"
But save exclusivity is as much a function of the manager as it is the reliever, and Motte credits his rookie manager with inspiring confidence. "He [Matheny] is always telling me 'Keep your head up. You're the guy I want back out there.'"
Does that mean the first-year manager is loathe to use other options and open himself to second-guessing? That's possible, but given Matheny's company -- Dusty Baker, Billy Martin and Bruce Bochy -- relying on one closer hardly seems the crutch of a novice. Coincidentally, the man responsible for half of the exclusive-closer seasons -- Baker -- was in the opposite dugout from Motte and Matheny on Wednesday. (Though Baker has relied on Aroldis Chapman for 38 saves, he has also used six others this season.)
Single-suiting your closer doesn't appear to confer any sort of advantage or disadvantage (three of the teams won at least 84 games; four teams lost at least 88). But most of the time, the pitchers entrusted with the responsibility merit their role. League save percentage is typically around 67 percent, but the sole closers have been above-average in dispatching their duties:
Year Tm Pitcher Sv%
2012 St. Louis Cardinals Jason Motte 86%
2008 Cincinnati Reds Francisco Cordero 85%
2008 San Diego Padres Trevor Hoffman 88%
2008 San Francisco Giants Brian Wilson 87%
2002 San Francisco Giants Robb Nen 84%
1996 San Francisco Giants Rod Beck 83%
1974 Texas Rangers Steve Foucault 60%
Things were different back in the '70s (in more ways than one), and Steve Foucault's season wasn't quite as bad as his 60 percent save rate seemed (the league average was only 61 percent), partly because of the "save inflation" effect of so-called "Nen saves" (three-run lead, nobody on base in the ninth inning). For example, in 1974 Foucault had roughly the same average game leverage index (a stat that attempts to quantify pressure situations in which 1.00 is average) -- 1.82 -- as this year's most-pressured reliever, Addison Reed -- 1.89 -- yet he was tied for 16th in baseball. (And in fairness to Nen, he had the highest average gmLI in baseball in 2002.)
Could it be a matter of a lack of alternatives? That's possible, but occasionally the manager's most-trusted second option (by game LI, min. 25 innings pitched), had a comparable ERA and/or fielding-independent pitching ERA:
Year Closer gmLIERA FIP Setup man gmLI ERA FIP
2012 Jason Motte 1.712.75 3.12 Edward Mujica 1.37 1.03 2.34
2008 F. Cordero 1.573.33 3.77 David Weathers 1.19 3.25 4.36
2008 T. Hoffman 1.843.77 3.99 Heath Bell 1.57 3.58 3.34
2008 Brian Wilson 2.044.62 3.93 Tyler Walker 1.57 4.56 4.24
2002 Robb Nen 2.022.20 1.97 Felix Rodriguez 1.45 4.17 3.66
1996 Rod Beck 1.773.34 4.04 Mark Dewey 1.16 4.21 4.86
1974 S. Foucault 1.822.24 2.77 Don Stanhouse 0.41 4.88 4.40
Baseball people are notoriously creatures of habit, so it may be as simple as a manager doing what works until it doesn't. In the Cardinals' case, Matheny recently settled on a seventh-eighth-ninth-inning cadence of Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Motte.
"Those outs (in the seventh and eighth) are just as important [as the ninth]," Motte said. "Sometimes those guys come in and face 3-4-5, then we get a couple of runs, and I get the save. And people say, 'Hey, ooh, you got the save,'" he says with mocking hands in the air. "But if not for the work those guys did, I'm not doing what I'm doing."
And, to be available for a save situation, as Motte notes, "A lot of it's just timing." But sometimes the timing backfires. The down side of using one pitcher for every possible save situation -- including the three-run leads -- is that he is unavailable for the times when you really need him, as Matheny found out to his chagrin recently in Chicago. Motte had pitched in the previous three games -- including the "save" in a 5-0 win over the hapless Astros. Until then, Motte had been the only pitcher who Matheny trusted to even attempt a save in the ninth inning or later. (Fernando Salas blew the save.)
To Matheny's credit, he has occasionally used Motte in the eighth inning for high-leverage plate appearances. Much is made of relievers knowing their roles, and though Motte concedes that it's important, "I just worry about getting the guy at the plate; it doesn't matter what inning." He adds, "It sounds cliché, but I just want to win."
If the Cardinals get past Friday's play-in game and perhaps repeat what they did in last year's playoffs, they'll lean on Motte again. How many consecutive games could he pitch? "Well, I felt fine for that game (on Sept. 21). Sometimes you go out there and you want to throw a thousand [mph], but hitting your spots is as important as speed. I can feel really good, but if I throw it middle-middle these guys are going to hit it. Slider low and away? Got it."