JUPITER, Fla. -- When the call came with the opportunity he had hoped last season would earn, St. Louis Cardinals reliever Mitchell Boggs didn't recognize the number and let it go to voice mail.
Thankfully, Joe Torre left a message.
Boggs still has it saved on his phone.
The former Cardinals and New York Yankees manager reached out to the righty and invited him to join Team USA for this month's World Baseball Classic. Boggs quickly dialed back and accepted, thrilled the season he promised he'd have not only included a league-high 34 holds and a 2.21 ERA but now delivered a chance to pitch for his country.
"I feel like being a part of the team is kind of recognition of how well I pitched last year. If I don't do what I did, I'm not even in the conversation," Boggs said Thursday. "I almost feel like I started my career last year. The few years before that I was just kind of there. I felt like coming into last year I had a decision -- I could continue to be that guy where I floated around and pitched in a lot of different roles, or I could take the next step and be the guy I thought I could be."
Boggs will fly to Arizona and Team USA's camp on Sunday, joining the team for the international tournament that stretches from Saturday through March 19th. The Cardinals' setup reliever made his penultimate appearance with his club Thursday. He pitched around a couple of walks in a scoreless eighth inning of an 8-2 victory over Miami at Roger Dean Stadium.
The inning and the result, if not the walks, was familiar for Boggs, who seized last season as his own. He served as the eighth-inning bridge to closer Jason Motte, part of a tandem that produced Boggs' Cardinals-record 34 holds and Motte's NL-high 42 saves.
"There have been a lot of guys on our club who have achieved a lot of different accolades and he's one guy who probably hasn't been acknowledged to the level that he could be," manager Mike Matheny said. "To be thrown in with that group (on Team USA) is a huge honor for him. ... I think the next step is to continue to take advantage of his opportunities like he did last year."
Boggs did not hide his intention going into the 2012 season. He arrived at Winter Warm-Up more than 12 months ago and stated, repeatedly, that he should be one of the best relievers in the league. He repeated that expectation privately to Matheny, the first-year manager. And when he arrived at spring training, he found his manager waiting for him with a message.
"Realizing there was a frustration there," Matheny explained. "It didn't take much to know the kind of talent he has. There is more there. We had the opportunity to communicate to him, 'I believe in you. I believe what you say that there is more there.' And part of that comes with opportunity and it just so happens that our roster lays out with opportunity. So take advantage of it."
Boggs' frustration stemmed from a season that ended with a parade. The righty became the Cardinals' yo-yo in 2011, yanked in an out of roles and even left spinning for a while in Class AAA. When his turn on the Cardinals' carousel of closers came up in mid-April, Boggs converted his first three chances, including two consecutive against rival Cincinnati. He struggled in his fourth chance -- blowing the save in Houston -- and didn't get another opportunity. Then things really got perplexing for the righty.
Within three weeks of his blown save, Boggs was demoted to Class AAA and told, after two years of being a reliever in the majors, that he would be turned into a starter again. A month later he returned to the big-league bullpen and stayed through the World Series run.
The message was mixed.
He kept his frustration muted.
"I learned a lot about myself that year," Boggs said. "If you told me that was what I was going to go through that year I was not sure how I would handle it. I wasn't as big of a part as I wanted to be. I came out of the season and into the winter extremely motivated not because we won a World Series, but because I felt that I could have done a whole lot more."
Matheny offered what Boggs said Thursday was "a fresh start." He won the setup role in spring training and zoomed to a career-high 78 games, the third-most all-time for a Cardinals' reliever. During one stretch, he went 23 consecutive appearances without allowing a run.
"That's who I think I am," he said. "That's who I always thought I was."
Doing more of the same better is the goal going into this season, with some fine-tuning. The Cardinals want Boggs to quicken his delivery to the plate to help defend against the running game. He worked on that Thursday when a runner reached base and promptly threw eight consecutive balls. The rhythm of his mechanics went awry as he tried to speed his delivery. He reset toward the end of the inning and coaxed a double-play grounder to end the scoreless inning.
Boggs will make one more appearance for the Cardinals, Saturday against Washington, before jetting to join Team USA to fill his role there in Torre's bullpen for a few weeks. Back in 2008, Boggs wanted to pitch in the Olympics, and the offer never came. The WBC fills that wish. Boggs keeps Torre's voice message from December as a reminder and played it for a few teammates earlier this week. He received a text message from Torre recently that reinforced Team USA's chances of winning the tournament.
Boggs knows a little about living up to bold intentions.
"Throughout the whole thing, throughout the entire last season, that's the guy I expected to be, and that's the guy I expect to be this season," Boggs said. "I don't think last year is something I'm going to hang my hat on. It's not something I going to rest on. It's something I need to build on."
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