Trevor Rosenthal, the Cardinals’ closer only since the final 10 days of last season, has started this year nine for nine in save opportunities and, over his first three months on the job, counting postseason play, he is 16 of 17, missing a save only in Game 3 of last year’s World Series when the Cardinals rallied to beat Boston anyway.
“I didn’t really know what to expect because I’d never done it before,” Rosenthal, 23, said the other day in Atlanta. “But it’s exciting, especially being on a team where you have a chance to contribute a lot.”
Is it possible that Rosenthal will be so adept at closing that he will be too valuable to move from the bullpen to the Cardinals’ rotation?
“It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “I love what I’m doing. If I have the opportunity to do this for a long time, I’ll be completely happy.”
The tradition of Cardinals closers is a storied one. Nine different relievers, accomplishing it 13 times, have had more than 35 saves in a season for the Cardinals, highlighted by Jason Isringhausen and Lee Smith, who share the club record with 47; to Hall of Famers Bruce Sutter and Dennis Eckersley to 1995 Rolaids winner Tom Henke to 1986 Rookie of the Year Todd Worrell to Jason Motte, who had 42 saves in 2012 before suffering a season-ending elbow injury in the spring of 2013.
“Those guys are so great,” said Rosenthal. “Right now, it doesn’t seem that I’m in the same category.”
Cardinals lefthander Randy Choate, who played with the greatest closer of all in retired New York Yankees ace Mariano Rivera, said it was too early in Rosenthal’s career to compare him to anybody, other than to suggest his future is almost limitless.
“He realizes that what he’s doing right now, he’s so good at,” said Choate. “It’s hard to take him out of that role.”
“Deep down inside, he still wants to be a starter. He likes the routine and to be able to compete for six, seven or eight innings at a time. He can overmatch a team. But he’s taken over this role and done so well that he’s more important to the team there than trying to fight to be a starter.”
An offense can pick up a struggling starter but there is no safety net for the closer. But Choate said, “He’s got that kind of confidence, so that if you blow it one day, you can go right back out and face the same guys and not even have it on your mind.
“He puts a lot of things behind him pretty quickly. That’s what you need as a reliever, in general, but especially as a closer because the game is pretty much on the line and in your hands.
“The few times you don’t get it done, you can’t let it wear on you and he does a good job of moving on to the next day and throwing whatever Yadi (catcher Yadier Molina) puts down.
“It’s tough to remember anything really going wrong for him. Early this season there were a few sub-par games — for him. But he’s able to bounce back and let everything else go away. That’s pretty impressive.”
Manager Mike Matheny, who displaced Edward Mujica for Rosenthal in late September last year, said, “He’s done a great job. When the situation gets tough, he gets better.
“Overall, he’s got the stuff. Nobody doubts that. But he’s got a good makeup for that position. He’s got a short memory when things don’t go real well.”
Rosenthal, a Lee’s Summit, Mo., native, said that interacting with those who had held the closer role before him had helped foster whatever attitude he possesses.
“(Jason) Motte, (Mitchell) Boggs and last year, Mujica ... I was just seeing how those guys went about it at the end of the game and how they continued to move on,” said Rosenthal. “That’s something I’ve tried to learn — not to let things snowball.
“I leave everything at the field and try not to take too much home with me.”
The important things include his eight-month-old daughter, Chloe.
“She’s a great baby,” said Rosenthal. “My wife (Lindsey) does a great job of taking care of her.
“It was tough last year during the playoffs getting any sleep. But she’s getting a little older and she’s nothing but fun right now.”
Although his earned run average is 4.70 before the start of a weekend series in Pittsburgh, Rosenthal really has had just one off stretch this year. On April 11, working his second inning in the 11th, he allowed a three-run, game-losing homer to Welington Castillo of the Chicago Cubs and two days later, he gave up a ninth-inning homer to the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo but recorded the save.
“It’s not always going to be great,” Rosenthal said. “You just try to roll with it.”
Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said that when something goes awry for Rosenthal, “it’s like water on a duck’s back.’’
Choate said, “He’s so different from a lot of guys. He’s so unique in his attitude. Part of it is he’s just 22 or 23. It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m Rosey.’
“He never seems to get rattled. You get runners at first and second and other people would be nervous, but he’s like, ‘OK, fastball. Whoosh. OK, slider. Whoosh.’
“He doesn’t worry about it. But when you can reach down and get 98 (miles an hour), that helps.”
Lilliquist, noting Rosenthal’s airiness, said, “I would even venture to say he’s 22 going on 13. And that’s great.”
To be abnormal as a closer, Lilliquist said, “is almost a prerequisite for that spot.”
Rosenthal “is always trying to stir the pot,” said Choate. “He’s always saying things down in the bullpen that he knows will get people agitated. Or he’ll try to get away with something because he knows it’s wrong, but he’s doing it in a lighthearted manner.’’
Lilliquist, calling Choate the club’s “special specialist,” said that Choate had three roles in the bullpen.
“To take care of Rosey. To get righties out. And to get lefties out. Taking care of Rosey requires the most effort — to keep his mind focused on being grounded,” said Lilliquist.
Lilliquist knows full well of Rosenthal’s past preference to start but he said, “Being a closer is a pretty good gig, too.”
Rosenthal offers no argument here.
“It’s been a blast,” he said. “I hope I keep getting opportunities. And it will be even more fun.”