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Big League Stew

Jason Motte looks to apply championship magic to the full season ahead

Big League Stew

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Jason Motte will be the Cardinals closer from Day 1 in 2012. (AP)

JUPITER, Fla. — Jason Motte walked toward his locker on Wednesday, his appearance different from the day before.

The hair that had been piled under his hat since who knows when was gone. His beard had been trimmed from "busy bushman" to "hardware store employee on his wedding day." The St. Louis Cardinals closer had visited the barber in advance of the team's photo day at Roger Dean Stadium, but the reason for losing his famous Yukon Cornelius look was also a practical one for the month of Florida humidity that was ahead.

"This is much cooler," Motte said in the A/C and not the cultural sense of the word.

Indeed it must be much better for sweat flow. But if you hadn't seen Motte blow through last October's postseason with the hairier look or spied him in the opening days of spring training, you might not have noticed a big difference. And that might be a good way to describe the current status of Motte and the rest of the defending World Series champions this spring.

On the one hand, Motte's life has been different since inducing a fly out from David Murphy that ended the Fall Classic and gave the Cardinals their 11th Series flag. He's been noticed on the street a lot more, even in his hometown of Memphis. The pile of fan mail that he attacked after our interview was much higher than it was a season before. He'll probably never have to pay for anything in St. Louis — Pappy's ribs included — again.

"It's just been unreal," said Motte after being asked about his whirlwind offseason.

"It's just a great feeling of accomplishment," teammate Lance Berkman added a few lockers away.

On the other, the team is now back to square one, with the biggest addition being Adam Wainwright and a World Series championship patch on every uniform sleeve and the biggest subtractions being, well, a front-line Hall of Fame first baseman and manager.

Though Berkman has been vocal this spring about saying this iteration of the Cardinals might be just as good as the one in 2011 — and several people have tried to prove this by comparing WAR sums — the fact remains that there are still plenty of questions to be answered. The team will have to stay healthy, something it really struggled with in 2011.

A lot of big contributors from last September and October will also have to prove they can do it over the long haul of a season. When you're talking about replacing the numbers that Albert Pujols took with him to Anaheim, David Freese is probably at the top of that list. So is Allen Craig.

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Jason Motte was a hero for the Cards during their Series run. (AP)

But Motte is probably the pitcher with the most expectations that are carrying over into this season. The 29-year-old right-hander was never officially christened as the team's closer at any point in 2011, but saved nine games after becoming the de facto ninth-inning guy in late August. He became the Cards' version of Brian Wilson during the postseason, saving five games and allowing only three runs in 13.1 innings pitched. All three runs were surrendered during the World Series, a total that included a 10th-inning solo blast to Josh Hamilton during the classic Game 6.

If the Cards don't come back to win that game, Motte's situation this spring would be written a lot differently. But thanks to Berkman and Freese providing similar heroics to what Motte had contributed earlier in the run, the story line is a storybook one. Motte has already received an early vote of confidence from new manager Mike Matheny and will go into the season opener at the new Marlins Ballpark as the no-doubt-about-it closer.

Motte says he hasn't worked on anything pitch or delivery related, and that he'll approach these opening games in April just like he did during the team's do-or-die stretch as they ran down the Atlanta Braves in the wild-card race. After taking a few weeks off following the team's championship celebration, Motte started working out and throwing at the University of Memphis, where he saw college ballplayers preparing for a season that starts much earlier than MLB.

"I saw them," Motte said. "And I'm like, 'I'm ready too, let's go.'"

Spring training has started, so don't miss a beat ...
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