Jason Motte thrives in the sort of scenario Pedro Strop faced Wednesday night: A one-run lead, the game on the line and a packed crowd of nearly 38,000 on its feet ready to erupt for a win over a heated rival.
The Cubs didn’t have Motte available to preserve a 5-4 ninth inning lead after the 33-year-old right-hander pitched both games of Tuesday’s doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals. So manager Joe Maddon turned to Strop, who blew the game when Jhonny Peralta ripped a 1-2 fastball into the left field basket for a go-ahead two-run home run.
While Motte isn’t the Cubs’ official closer, it was a spot he likely would’ve found himself in had he not pitched in those two games the day before.
Motte is three years removed from leading the National League with 42 saves for a Cardinals team that lost the NLCS to the San Francisco Giants in seven games. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2013 and is finally finding the success he enjoyed a few years ago, though it’s not because he’s cleared a physical hurdle.
Instead, Motte’s return to pressure-packed situations — be it in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning — has him feeling like himself again.
“I was kind of up and down with when I got in and when I didn’t get in and stuff like that (last year), and this year it’s more of a consistent thing in some roles that I’m used to,” Motte said. “… You get that adrenaline going, you get other things going and you kinda get things going a little more to see where you are.”
Coming off Tommy John with the Cardinals last year, Motte was mostly used in early-inning or blow situations and posted a 4.68 ERA. Of the 110 batters he faced, 94 came in what Baseball-Reference.com characterizes as low-leverage spots. It’s not a coincidence that opposing hitters had a .921 OPS against Motte in those low-leverage plate appearances.
Motte’s ability to thrive on adrenaline allows the Cubs to be flexible and not pigeonhole him into a defined role as a closer or setup guy. His strikeout of Washington’s Anthony Rendon with the tying run on second came in the seventh inning June 4 and was critical in the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the National League East leaders. In Game 2 against St. Louis on Tuesday, Motte gave up three hits and a run but was able to work his way out of that self-inflicted jam to nail down his fifth save of the season.
With the Cubs, Motte is limiting opposing hitters to a .178 batting average, a .527 OPS and hasn’t allowed a home run in high-leverage situations.
“It speaks really a lot about his ability to slow things down and not get caught up in the moment in a negative way,” Maddon said. “That’s, right now, among all of his best features is that, the fact that he’s able to process that moment without permitting it to overwhelm him.”
The Cubs bullpen may not have much star power, at least until Rafael Soriano gets his arm strength back and joins the group sometime after the All-Star break. But it’s a group that has a 3.15 ERA, fourth-best in the National League, and its 2.29 mark over the last 30 days is the second-best in baseball — even despite Strop’s high-profile blown save Wednesday night.
Motte’s resurgence — he’ll enter the Crosstown series with 2.97 ERA — and ability to negotiate those tough outs and innings has been a big reason for the overall success of the Cubs’ bullpen.
“I love those situations,” Motte said. “That’s what I did before surgery and that’s my goal after surgery to get back pitching in those situations. I didn’t know where I was going to be or who I was going to play for but (I wanted to) have a manager having that confidence in me that he’d want to put me in those situations.”