Mujica taking ownership of the ninth inning

St. Louis — Edward Mujica says it happened in Philadelphia on April 18.

There the Cardinals reliever who had usually stuck to the seventh inning was, out on the mound in the ninth. Things weren’t going very well. First, Phillies’ outfielder Ben Revere had singled to center. Then, catcher Erik Kratz had singled to right. Runners stood on first and third with no outs, jeopardizing the Cards’ 4-3 lead.

It was at this point the right-hander says he had a conversation with himself, a moment of reflection he has continued to come back to this season when he  lands in a tough spot.

“Now, I’m going to put my mind the right way,” Mujica recalled Wednesday. “And you guys see it.”

The pep talk appears to have worked. Mujica escaped the jam in Philadelphia by sandwiching a strikeout of Jimmy Rollins between two groundouts. It was his first save of the season, and he’s cruised as a closer ever since.

In doing so, he’s brought stability to a key role in the Cardinals bullpen, a closer spot that’s struggled due to Jason Motte’s lingering injury and Mitchell Boggs’ rocky start. Mujica is the man for now, and he’s not offering any reasons to think differently.

“Edward has been very good for us,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Wednesday. “Hopefully he stays with it.”

Cincinnati saw it firsthand. Mujica slammed the door on back-to-back Cardinals wins to help St. Louis end its three-game series against the Reds on a high note.

On Tuesday, Mujica struck out the side in the ninth, sending three of the Reds’ best hitters (Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce) back to the dugout empty-handed. Then, on Wednesday, he buckled down in the face of adversity, just like he did in Philadelphia. The leadoff batter in the ninth, Reds’ second baseman Phillips, capitalized on a first-pitch fastball that got higher than Mujica hoped. Phillips’ one-run shot whittled the Cardinals’ lead to 4-2. The next batter, Bruce, reached on a fielding error by Cardinals second baseman Daniel Descalso.

Mujica stepped from the mound, pounded a fist into his glove and gathered himself.

“After that, I just cooled my mind,” he would say later. “OK. Let’s go. Let’s do it.”

A change up got Todd Frazier to ground into a double play that cleared the bases. Mujica then coaxed Donald Lutz into a game-ending groundout for his sixth save of the season. Wearing a broad smile in the Cardinals clubhouse after the game, he reminded everyone that those six saves are two more than he had in his previous four seasons combined.

“I like it, man,” he said. “I like it. It’s hard, but Matheny gave me the confidence, gave me the ball in the ninth. I’m just going out there and trying to make it happen.”

So far so good.

Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred) and contact him at frederickson.ben@gmail.com