Jason Motte: Pitching Like He Belongs

Brian Walton sits down with St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jason Motte to review the long and twisting road the reliever followed to reach the major leagues since being drafted back in 2003 as a catcher.

So much for being eased into the role of a major league relief pitcher. Yet based on solid results his first four outings that came in rapid succession over his first nine days in the bigs, St. Louis Cardinals rookie reliever Jason Motte should be receiving many more chances down the road.

Brought up from Triple-A Memphis for the first time ever on September 2, his initial phone call to the pen came the very next day. With the Cards on the ropes in the seventh inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the right-hander couldn't have been given a more challenging assignment for his MLB debut. The bases were loaded with two outs as his team was trying to protect a shaky one-run lead.

All the 26-year-old did was fan Arizona number five hitter Mark Reynolds swinging on a 98 MPH 1-2 fastball after showing him a 97 MPH offering on the previous pitch. Motte hit 99 on the gun several times in the eighth inning as he allowed his first hit. He then retired the next three batters, including his second strikeout and received his first hold in the process.

Motte came into another tough situation on Tuesday as the first-place Chicago Cubs had loaded the bases. He induced a fly out and a strikeout to snuff the threat. Back on the Busch Stadium mound the next night, he yielded only a walk while fanning two Chicagoans in yet another scoreless frame.

Yet, the fireballer remains a work in progress. In last Friday's 11th inning, Motte allowed two inherited runs to score on a pair of hits before getting the final out against the Florida Marlins. Overall in 3 1/3 innings, he has six strikeouts against only one walk, three hits and one unearned run, clearly looking like he belongs.

While the sample size remains small, Motte's rate of stranding seven of nine inherited runners is better than the marks of established pen-mates Ryan Franklin and Kyle McClellan and comparable to stalwart fireman Russ Springer.

Before his September call up, Motte had a standout season in Triple-A, where he fanned 110 in 66 2/3 innings with Memphis. The former catcher had a 4-3 record with nine saves and a 3.24 ERA. He had been added to the Cardinals' 40-man roster over the winter.

The Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the Month for July came into St. Louis on a roll, registering six saves and a 1.88 ERA while walking eight and striking out 49 in his final 27 Memphis outings since July 1.

I recently spoke to Motte about his professional journey that led him to become the 11th Cardinals player to make his MLB debut this season.

BW: I am here with Jason Motte, reliever with the St. Louis Cardinals. How does that title sound to you, Jason?

JM: It sounds pretty good, man. It's pretty good timing!

BW: Back when you were a kid, when did you first think you wanted to become a major leaguer?

JM: Honestly, ever since I could remember. My older brother – he is ten years older than I am – he would always play baseball. It was one of those things that where since he played baseball, then I wanted to play. It is all I ever really wanted to do.

BW: When did you decide that catching was the way you wanted to go?

JM: I was always kind of a small kid. When I was eight or nine, coach was putting us at every position and I liked catching. So I worked at it and got lessons. When my older brother played in the minor leagues, he played for the Twins, I went down to some of his minor league games and worked with some of the catchers down there when I was 11, 12, 13 years old. I tried to work on what I needed to do to get better. At a young age, I loved catching.

BW: You were drafted in 2003 and hurt your thumb in 2005, and missed the rest of the season, right?

JM: Yes, sir. They had asked me to pitch earlier in '05, but I said, "I really want to see how I finish out the year hitting, until the All-Star break." They gave me until the week after the All-Star break when a foul ball broke my hand. I came back in '06 and they turned me into a pitcher about a month into it.

BW: How confident were you when you made the change? Did you think you could do it or did you know you could do it?

JM: I was kind of nervous. I had never pitched. I think the last time I threw, I was like 12 years old. My main thing was that I wanted to be given a chance. "I've never done this before. I don't just want to be thrown out there and if I struggle, then ‘See you later'."

They said, "We're going to give you time to develop. Time to do better. Time so that when you have bumps in the road, we're going to stick with you." That really helped a lot, them saying "We're going to stick with you. We've got your back. Just go out there and relax. We know you are learning a new position, so don't go out there and try to do everything in one day. It is going to take time."

BW: The Cardinals really lived up to their side of the bargain, didn't they?

JM: Yes, sir. Yes, sir, they did!

BW: When you made this decision, did you think there was any way possible that you would be pitching in the major leagues by the end of your second full season as a pitcher?

JM: Not at all. I really didn't know what to expect. I started out in short-season and ended up in low-A my first year. I did pretty well and started in the Florida State League last year and ended up in Double-A. I really had no clue in how everything was going to go, whether it was going to go well or go bad. I went out there and did my thing and everything has worked out.

BW: You were Memphis' closer starting when Kelvin Jimenez was called up in mid-July. How did you like that job?

JM: I liked it. When they turned me into a pitcher, in short-season, that is what I was doing. I was closing, but when I went up to low-A, (Chris) Perez was there. I started out last year for Palm Beach for the first month closing. I got a few saves there.

To me, I try not to look at it any different whether it is the sixth inning or fifth inning or ninth inning. You go out there and you have a job to do. You've got to make your pitches. You've got to get your three outs, put up a zero on the board. That is what you have to try to do every time. It is really the same mentality with me. I've got to go out there and get three outs.

BW: It's time to ask the question that everyone wants the answer to. Your fastball is your claim to fame, your best pitch. But where is the slider now? Is it major league-ready?

JM: Yeah. I've thrown it and it's getting a lot better. The ones I've thrown, we've tried to get it off the plate, for guys to chase it. The other day, Yadi was like, "Hey, if we go with it, we're going to go with it off the plate. And we may come back fastball."

It's there. It was getting there in Memphis. I've talked with Marty (bullpen coach Mason) and he says I should go out there and trust it and not try to do too much with it.

BW: I recall having a similar conversation with Chris Perez earlier this season. He was struggling here and after he went back down to Memphis, he must have really worked on it. If you have to go back down, not this year, but next spring, how would you feel about that?

JM: I hope I don't have to, but if that is what happens, it happens. That's the way the game is. I may have to go back down and work on stuff, and if I do, I am going to do everything I can to get back up here. My goal is still the same – to get here and stay here.

BW: Well you have some time between now and then to work on your game. It is true that you are going to pitch winter ball in Mexico?

JM: Well, I was going to, but I am not sure now. It depended on if I got called up or not. I was thinking that if I got called up, I was probably not going to go. If I didn't get called up, then I was going to take September, stay in shape, and then go pitch winter ball.

As of right now, I am not really sure. It depends on how much I pitch up here and how my arm feels at the end of September. That is really going to be the factor as to whether I go and play or not.

BW: You've thrown more innings this season (70) than either of the other two. How is your arm feeling at this point?

JM: Knock on wood. My arm feels fine. It feels normal. I don't feel anything different than I did last year (ed.: 59 IP). It feels good, so I'll just keep going.

BW: Last question. What are you going to do during the off-season to relax?

JM: I am just going to go between Johnson City (TN – his home) and Hattiesburg (MS), visiting my girlfriend down there. That's about it. Hanging out and relaxing. Doing a bunch of nothing.

BW: Nothing wrong with that! Jason, thank you for your time. Congratulations for making it to the majors and I hope to see you here for a long time.

JM: Thank you very much.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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