Change in style has Cardinals closer Rosenthal looking better than ever

Trevor Rosenthal saved 45 games and struck out 87 in 70 1/3 innings in his first full season as the Cardinals' closer. 

Reinhold Matay/Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

JUPITER, Fla. — If the Cardinals were to ask Trevor Rosenthal to throw under-handed, he would probably say, in his aw-shucks voice and with a sheepish grin, "Sure, why not?"

The Cardinals, of course, would not make such a silly request of their 24-year-old, big-armed closer. But they have asked Rosenthal to make a pretty significant change this season.

They asked him to pitch exclusively from the stretch, to which Rosenthal replied, "Sure, why not?" In his young career, Rosenthal typically has worked out of his windup when no one was on base. But in at effort to reduce last year’s first-batter woes as well as his walks, he has been working only from the stretch.

"The thinking is he’s more consistent out of the stretch," pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. "We’re going to simplify for him."

Rosenthal saved 45 games and struck out 87 in 70 1/3 innings in his first full season as the club’s closer. But he also averaged 5.37 walks per nine innings and struggled against the first batter he faced, which typically was at the start of an inning when he was working out of a full windup. First batters hit .323 against Rosenthal, everyone else just .156.

When he pitches out of a windup, Rosenthal sometimes rushes his delivery, possibly because he is so amped up in his new role. When a pitcher gets his arm out too far in front of his body, his pitches have a tendency to sail high.

"Exactly," Lilliquist said. "Your arm’s not ready and your foot’s down."

Working with a simpler windup should fix the mechanical issue, the Cardinals believe.

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And Rosenthal?

"I feel the same out of both," he said. "I don’t keep the stats. If they think it will benefit, I told them I would try it. I have to make my best pitches out of the stretch, anyway."

Something seems to be working. Manager Mike Matheny and Lilliquist both have raved about Rosenthal since the exhibition season started. He has made five outings covering five innings and walked only one. In his second outing, on a day he went strictly with fastballs, Rosenthal gave up a two-run, game-deciding homer to an Astros prospect. In his past two appearances, he has gone three-up, three-down and consistently stayed ahead in the count.

After Rosenthal struck out two in his inning against the Mets on Friday, finishing his effort with a 99-mph, strike-three fastball, Matheny said, "He looks as good as I’ve ever seen him."

Added Lilliqust before Friday’s game, "In his last outing (also a clean inning), he was the best I’ve seen him in two years."

Besides changing his approach on the mound, Rosenthal says he has been tinkering with a new pitch. He calls it a slider but says it behaves more like a cutter. "I’m just thinking about it more as a slider," he said. "I’ve been throwing it quite a bit. I like it a lot."

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Given his high-heat fastball, his secondary pitches don’t need to be dominant, just good enough so hitters can’t just sit on his fastball.

Rosenthal also said being in his second year in the closer’s role could reduce some of the adventures he endured last season.

"The longer you play the game, you adjust to the ups and downs. You know some days will be bad, some days will be good," he said. "It’s about showing up every day and going with the flow.

"I’ve felt really good this spring so far."

But you always say that? "Yeah," he said with grin.

The way he’s pitching from the stretch so far, he’s giving the Cardinals reason to feel pretty good, too.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.