ST. LOUIS — OK, Edward Mujica, tell us about your split-finger fastball, the pitch every bit as responsible for putting the Cardinals on top of the NL Central as Carlos Beltran’s 17 homers, Yadier Molina’s .366 batting average and Adam Wainwright’s 10 wins.
“Everybody is calling it a split-finger but you know what, the grip is kind of like a circle changeup,” Mujica says.
What? You mean the pitch that saved the Cardinals’ bullpen is being called something it’s not?
“I don’t know,” Mujica says, with a smile. “It’s like 50-50, some people would call it a splittie, some would call it a changeup. I think maybe, split-changeup.”
What about it, Yadier Molina? You’re the one back there calling for the pitch.
“I don’t know,” he says coyly. “I just know it’s working.”
Split-change is appropriate because the pitch acts two ways. Sometimes, it breaks down and away from left-handed hitters. Sometimes, it breaks straight down like a splitter.
Any change in how Mujica grips the ball for the different actions is subtle. As he stands in the Cardinals’ clubhouse and tries to demonstrate, what is clear is that he doesn’t use the typical circle-change grip, but neither does he jam the ball between his middle and fore fingers a la a split-finger. He essentially uses a hybrid grip, and the action changes depending on how much he gets on top of the ball.
“He takes a little off, puts a little on,” manager Mike Matheny says. “He’s doing more pitching now.”
“Sometimes when I get two strikes, I get more on top and the ball drops like a split-finger,” Mujica says. “I want the ball to bounce in the dirt.”
Whatever you want to call the pitch, Mujica is throwing it a lot. “Almost every pitch,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum says.
According to fangraphs.com, Mujica has used his fastball on only 39.2 percent of his pitches this season. He had thrown his fastball more than 50 percent of the time in his first six seasons, with usage dropping to 45.3 percent last year after he was traded to the Cardinals.
“Since I got here last year, Yadi has been calling that pitch a lot,” Mujica says. “Sometimes he will call it five times in a row.”
“If it’s working, why change,” Molina says.
Mujica has a 2.03 ERA for the season and has converted all 20 of his save opportunities since Matheny turned the ninth inning over to him after Jason Motte was lost for the season and Mitchell Boggs failed to step up. In stops at Cleveland, San Diego and Miami, Mujica’s time mostly came in the seventh inning.
That is where he worked last year after the Cardinals acquired him from the Marlins for minor league third baseman Zack Cox. That is where Mujica figured to spend this season until Matheny approached him when the Cardinals visited Pittsburgh in mid-April.
“Mike gave me pretty good confidence when I got here last year,” Mujica says. “This year, he gives me even more.”
“(The confidence) comes from having success,” Matheny says. “Making big league hitters make quick outs just reinforces that his stuff is good.”
The 29-year-old Venezuelan has made it look easy, at least until this week. In 12 of his saves, he has worked a three-up, three-down ninth inning. In his 31 innings, he has walked only one to go with 27 strikeouts. He has been scored on in only five of his 30 outings, and not once has he given up more than one run.
Still, Mujica’s lack of closing experience in a pennant race and a recent stumble — he has surrendered homers in his past two outings — have been enough to kindle speculation that the Cardinals could shop for a closer. Such prospects appear slim, though, because of a thin market and the club’s reluctance to pay big bucks for a closer.
Mujica certainly doesn’t sound like a reliever headed for a slump.
“I have 100 percent confidence right now,” Mujica says. “Yadi calls the pitch, we have been doing a pretty good job.”
Mujica has even developed a little post-save celebration, though it is nowhere close to some of the histrionics seen from other closers (Fernando Rodney, anyone?). He has developed a little hand thing that he believes resembles a bird — or a Cardinal — fluttering its wings. Other than that, handshakes and back slaps are about it.
Clearly, though, Mujica is enjoying his role as bullpen savior and the rush that comes with finishing off an opponent. He is eligible to become a free agent next season, and when asked about his intentions he admits, “I like to be the closer.”
But knowing how quickly situations can change and a lot of the season remains, he quickly adds that really, he just wants to pitch.
“I want to be in the big leagues for like 15 years doing what I can do,” he says. “No matter what the situation — seventh, eighth, ninth, whatever.”
He has the pitch to do the job, too, no matter what you want to call it.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.