The closer situation for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 was quite fluid – one might even be justified in calling it volatile. Yet, the reason this story is only ranked number 17 among the other top stories from the World Champions’ year is resiliency.
Of their 90 wins, the 2011 Cardinals accumulated a save in 47 of them, fifth-most in the National League. The history books will forever indicate that eight different hurlers recorded at least one save. Five of the relievers unofficially held the job at one point over the six-plus months.
In terms of raw numbers, Fernando Salas led the way with 24 saves, followed by Jason Motte with nine, Eduardo Sanchez with five and Mitchell Boggs with four. The other stray saves were picked up by non-closers Octavio Dotel (two), Trever Miller and Lance Lynn (one each).
Then there was Ryan Franklin, also with one save. I would hazard a guess that coming into the season, no one would have forecast the incumbent closer if healthy would end up with just a single save. Yet, that is precisely what happened.
The 38-year-old had entered 2011 with 82 saves accumulated over the previous three seasons and a firm hold on the closer’s spot. Before June was out, Franklin not only had lost the ninth-inning job, he was unemployed, his playing career over.
Franklin’s bookend in the role was Motte. After an impressive run of 29 consecutive outings without having allowed an earned run, Motte picked up his very first save of the season on August 29th. He held the role during the final month and through the post-season despite never having been named the closer by manager Tony La Russa.
In a clear departure from La Russa’s coyness, new skipper Mike Matheny stated the obvious when he recently identified Motte as the incumbent closer heading into 2012 camp.
In between, here is how a most eventful 2011 unfolded for the Cardinals’ ninth-inning corps.
The Cardinals stumbled on opening day in 11 innings versus San Diego as Franklin blew the save. He absorbed two defeats and blew three more saves through game 16 as the Cards lost their first three series. At that point, Franklin was removed as closer. His appearances dramatically dwindled over time until his June 29 release.
Boggs’ reign as closer passed in the blink of an eye. The right-hander logged three saves at home in late April but lost the job after a meltdown in Houston on April 26. In an odd move, Boggs was optioned to Memphis on May 23 to become a starter and work on his secondary pitches. After three weeks in exile, he returned to St. Louis’ bullpen, but never had another shot at closing, or starting, for that matter.
Sanchez, the youngest of the group at 22 years of age, next held the job briefly. His first save was on April 27, the very next night after Boggs’ Waterloo. Sanchez added four more saves over the next four weeks, but also took a loss and two blown saves.
Sanchez was placed on the 15-day DL retroactive to June 13 with what was called at the time a “mild right shoulder strain.” His original late July estimated return ended up extending well into September. It cost him another shot at the closers job and kept him off the post-season roster.
Salas, St. Louis’ version of Rodney Dangerfield, was next in the barrel. After being sent down to Triple-A Memphis six times in 2010, Salas did not make the Cardinals out of spring training in 2011, either. He did all he could as his ERA in Florida spring games was 0.73.
After being recalled in mid-April, Salas saved his first game of the season on April 28. It also happened to be the third game of that fateful Houston series. Over the last 12 games of May, Salas was a perfect 6-for-6 and had a total of 10 saves heading into June.
By August 11, the native of Mexico had converted 22 of 25 save opportunities (88 percent) and had a record of 5-4. Then came two blown saves in his next two outings. Though he allowed just one run in each game, Salas was out. He was given just three more opportunities the rest of the season as Motte took control.
Despite Motte ending the year as the club’s closer after that very strong stretch as set-up man, Salas actually logged a higher save percentage (80%) than Motte (69.2%) over the course of the regular season.
Still, Motte was a big part of the Cardinals September resurgence as he saved nine of ten opportunities and added two holds, two wins and three no-decisions in his final 17 regular season appearances after taking over.
Overall, the pen had evolved to the point it was a strength in the post-season. Motte appeared 12 times. He went 5-for-5 in save opportunities, though he took one loss, in Game 2 of the World Series. His post-season ERA was 2.19.
Heading into 2012, it is clear the job that no one could seem to hold is now Motte’s to either solidify or lose.
Note: To view detailed stats of all the Cardinals’ 2011 relievers, click here to be taken to the article “St. Louis Cardinals 2011 Reliever of the Year” at TheCardinalNation.com.