With his uneven, unkempt beard and a fastball that would break the speed limit in all 50 states and on the Autobahn, St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Jason Motte(notes) plays the role of stereotypical closer awfully well. There's just one difference between him and the rest of the late-game lockdown artists in baseball.
Motte can't see where he's throwing.
He's not blind, exactly, but the 29-year-old's nearsightedness is bad enough that he often squints on the mound because he can't see catcher Yadier Molina's(notes) fingers, which indicate the pitch Motte is supposed to throw. Afternoon games at St. Louis' Busch Stadium, with their perilous shadows, are particularly difficult. Sometimes Motte will wave his glove up and down, asking Molina to hold his fingers lower – and, in the process, exposing the sign to the opposing dugout.
"I don't know what my vision is," Motte said, "but I can promise I'm not Ted Williams."
Williams, the Hall of Famer, was famous for his 20/10 eyesight. Motte may be 20/100, 20/1000, 20/1 million. He doesn't know, and no longer does he care. Ever since an eye doctor in 2009 told Motte he needed some sort of vision correction, he has tried to fix his eyes – and to no avail.
Oakley outfitted him with glasses, like former New York Yankees pitcher Ryne Duren and the Charlie Sheen character in "Major League," Ricky Vaughn.
"But it would get hot out there and get foggy," Motte said, "and I couldn't see."
He still wears them off the field. On the mound, he switched to contact lenses.
"And when they got dry, it was even worse," Motte said. "When your eyes get dry, it burns. It's easy in normal life. Not on the mound."
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So Motte came up with a novel concept: pitching au naturel, or at least eye naturel. The 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitcher's mound to home plate are a blurry mess for Motte. He still manages to walk 2.1 batters per nine innings, a staggeringly low rate for someone with the 11th-best velocity in the major leagues this year.
As excellent as Motte was in the regular season, he's been even better during the playoffs. In eight postseason innings, he has allowed one single, no runs, no walks and struck out seven en route to four saves. Motte stood on the mound as the Cardinals advanced to the World Series on Sunday night, striking out Mark Kotsay(notes) with his signature high fastball before a mob enveloped him.
The stampede coming toward him was as clear as could be.
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Never did Motte crack triple digits on the radar gun this season. He was lighting up 98s and 99s all National League Championship Series against the Brewers, and they looked as hapless as hitters have almost all year.
Motte emerged as a force out of the Cardinals' bullpen last season, and after passing his closer job around the bullpen like a peace pipe, manager Tony La Russa named Motte his chief in August. Save for one rough stretch with a week left in the season, including the disastrous loss to the Mets in which St. Louis blew a six-run lead, Motte has been the perfect cog in the Cardinals' bullpen machine.
La Russa yanked his starting pitchers with impunity during the NLCS because his bullpen of Octavio Dotel(notes), Mark Rzepczynski, Lance Lynn(notes), Arthur Rhodes(notes), Fernando Salas(notes), Mitchell Boggs(notes) and Motte induced swing after feeble swing from the Brewers. Repeating the same with the Texas Rangers, the Cardinals' World Series opponents, is fraught with more difficulty.
Not only are the Rangers fastball hitters – slugger Nelson Cruz(notes) set an LCS record with six home runs off a steady diet of heaters – their lineup is top to bottom more potent than Milwaukee's. Motte tries not to know any better. He goes. He throws. And that's about the extent of his pitching psychology.
Makes sense, seeing as Motte grew up a position player. He was a great-arm, can't-hit sort out of Iona College, the New York school that's hardly a baseball powerhouse. Motte caught for three seasons after signing with the Cardinals as a 19th-round draft pick until they realized he never was going to hit enough to play in the major leagues.
"I couldn't see," Motte said. "It explains why I hit .190 in the minor leagues. At least, I can say that's why. It's a built-in excuse for me now. I just wasn't good."
The Cardinals didn't want to waste an arm like Motte's, so they converted him to pitcher and watched him light up guns around baseball. Four years later, Motte never did develop much of a secondary pitch – occasionally he throws a cut fastball or changeup – but his fastball was so good it dragged him to the major leagues, crazy delivery and all.
"I'd like to think I'm a pitcher," Motte said. "But I don't try to think too much. I'm not a finesse guy. I'm not thinking that I'll do this and that. I attack hitters. I go at them. I try to locate and execute my pitches. I'm a max-effort guy."
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So if the Cardinals have a lead in the ninth inning or are entangled in a close eighth inning, on will come the guy who couldn't see straight but certainly could shoot so. Every so often, Motte will miss a fastball high and inside, one that burns the whiskers off a batter's face, and the hitter will wonder exactly what is going on, whether Motte is trying to send a message or just wild or lost his grip.
Sometimes, it's none of the above.
"We can let them think I don't know what I'm doing out there," Motte said.
He slipped on a pair of prescription sunglasses – the sort he used to wear on the field – and jogged off. Later in the night, he would emerge from the bullpen with naked eyes and mow down the Brewers with ease. The swings and misses kept coming and the Milwaukee hitters flailed away, and Motte didn't need to have good vision to know one thing.
He liked what he saw.