La Russa has yet to designate a closer

Tuesday, March 17, 2009
** FILE ** In this Feb. 20, 2009 file photo, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jason Motte throws during spring training baseball practice in Jupiter, Fla. Motte is one of the pitchers Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is considering to be the closer for the Cardinals this year. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

JUPITER, Fla. -- Tony La Russa could go with one of the fireballing kids: Chris Perez or Jason Motte.

There's veteran Ryan Franklin, who had 17 saves in 25 chances last year when he took over from Jason Isringhausen.

Maybe it'll be a mix of all three.

"I think we're all getting a little tired of people asking who's the closer," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "We've been pretty upfront that we're going to use these three weeks."

Franklin thinks La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan know who they want. Three weeks before the start of the season, La Russa isn't tipping his hand.

** FILE ** St. Louis Cardinals reliever Ryan Franklin throws during a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Thursday, April 26, 2007 in St. Louis. After working most of his first five seasons as a starter with Seattle, the right-hander spent last season with Philadelphia and Cincinnati as a reliever, but Franklin seems to have found his comfort zone this season in a Redbird uniform. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, file)

"You just see how they pitch and the impression they give you, and if one guy emerges he becomes the closer," La Russa said. "If he doesn't, they all kind of share it."

When Isringhausen was in his prime, he often didn't close spring training games until late March.

"I don't think it's fair to start putting one above the other right now because the competition is different right now than it will be then," Duncan said. "And it's not just that, it's how you handle the ninth inning with a lead versus how you handle the fourth inning, with real good hitters."

The 23-year-old Perez finished last year getting closing chances, although La Russa never officially anointed him.

"Everybody knew," Perez said. "If it looks like it and smells like it, it probably is it. It wasn't really a big deal to me."

AARON EISENHAUER ~ aeisenhauer@semissourian.com
Cardinals pitcher Chris Perez hands back a baseball after signing it for a fan during the Cardinals Caravan on Monday, January 21, 2007 at the Osage Center.

Perez, who had seven saves in 11 opportunities last year, realizes La Russa withheld that title while also trying to withhold some of the pressure that comes with it. He also realizes it's a mind game.

"You're a rookie and that's how it is," Perez said. "Tony's big about that, he wants you to earn your stripes. Which is fine, competition is a good thing."

The 26-year-old Motte throws harder than Perez, in the high 90s, and struck out 110 in 66 2/3 innings at Class AAA Memphis last year. He also had a 0.82 ERA with a save in 12 appearances with St. Louis.

A converted catcher, he's only been pitching for four seasons.

"Hopefully I'll make the team, that's my main objective right now," Motte said. "I'm not trying to be the closer, trying to be this, trying to be that. It doesn't matter if I pitch the sixth or the ninth."

If not this year, La Russa thinks both Perez and Motte have the stuff and the makeup to be full-time closers.

The 36-year-old Franklin throws about 92 to 93 mph, but has an array of pitches: three fastballs, a curveball, a slider and a splitter.

"Throwing harder helps you get away with mistakes a little bit, but that's about it," Franklin said.

Franklin is a bit defensive about his statistics last year, noting at least a couple of his blown saves came in games where he had virtually no shot. He entered one with the bases loaded and gave up a tying sacrifice fly. Another occurred in the sixth inning,

"There were some joke blown saves," Franklin said. "You kidding me?"

Franklin was thrown into a difficult situation last year, replacing a respected teammate who holds the franchise record for saves.

"We weren't best buddies but we were close and it was tough," Franklin said. "Somebody had to step in there."

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