ST. LOUIS — Remember when Tony La Russa refused to call Jason Motte the Cardinals’ closer even after weeks of Motte pitching in the ninth inning? Not until the Cardinals were spraying champagne after winning the World Series did La Russa relent and bestow the title on the hard-throwing right-hander.
Well, a different twist on such role-calling is brewing inside the Cardinals’ clubhouse these days. This time, it’s not only the manager who is playing with semantics.
Though Trevor Rosenthal has, not surprisingly, emerged as Mike Matheny’s No. 1 ninth-inning replacement for Edward Mujica, the rookie right-hander isn’t looking to be labeled.
“I don’t really consider myself to be the closer of the team,” Trevor Rosenthal said Wednesday afternoon after he had saved his third game in three days.
No problem. Rosenthal has his reasons for eschewing the title, and they’re all good.
Start with this: Roles really don’t matter at this time of year. During the regular season, relievers prefer having set roles because they like knowing the situations when their name will be called. But when the postseason is beckoning, they just want to pitch.
As humble as the rest of the Cardinals’ rookies, Rosenthal also is showing his respect to Mujica as well as the veterans by not concerning himself with job designations. Rosenthal has offered his props to Mujica at every opportunity.
“Without Mujica, we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now,” Rosenthal said. “You have to give him a lot of credit. We’re still going to lean on him.”
Perhaps Rosenthal doesn’t want to be considered a closer because he might look at his job differently. After excelling in the eighth inning all season, why should he think the ninth is any more important? That would be discounting the work he did getting all those leads to Mujica.
“From seventh inning on, you’re coming in and if there’s one-run (differential) and the game is on the line, you never know what can happen,” Rosenthal said. “You can’t take those outs for granted.
“I try to approach it the same. Come in, one out at a time. I don’t focus too much on the inning or the score. Work with Yadi (Molina), trust the defense and hopefully it works out.”
During a three-game sweep of the Nationals, it could not have worked much better. On Monday with a one-run lead, lefty Kevin Siegrist started the ninth and retired lefty-hitting Bryce Harper. Rosenthal was summoned for the final two outs. On Tuesday with a two-run lead, he came in after Michael Wacha lost his no-hit bid and got Jayson Werth to ground out. On Wednesday with a three-run lead, Rosenthal started the ninth and retired the side on 11 pitches. One constant in all three games was that Rosenthal did not allow a base runner.
While Rosenthal spent the summer setting up Mujica, he admits to wondering a little about the ninth. “But pitching the eighth, I got a taste of it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a ton of difference.”
That said, he doesn’t mind being in a position now to take home a souvenir from a successful outing: the game ball. Rosenthal said he retrieved the ball after his second and third saves this week but still is seeking the first one. “I really didn’t know how it worked,” he said.
Finally, as much as a team-first player is Rosenthal, he might have one selfish reason for not wanting to be considered a closer. To accept the title might give the team’s decision-makers the impression that he wants to be a closer long-term. Not so. The 23-year-old still has his sights set on starting someday.
When I told him the adrenaline rush that comes with closing has made numerous relievers lose their desire to start, he smiled.
“I don’t know about that,” he said.
We’ll see. The way he’s worked the ninth innings this week, he figures to get plenty of chances to find out.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.