ST. LOUIS — If you think the Cardinals are considering moving Trevor Rosenthal out of his ninth-inning role, think again.
"Not happening," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said with conviction and no hesitation Sunday afternoon following his team’s 7-6 victory over the Padres. "He’s our closer."
Matheny stood by his man even after he had pulled him with one out in the ninth and the Cardinals up by three. But Rosenthal was in trouble.
He walked the first two batters he faced, the Padres’ seventh- and eighth-hole hitters, on five and four pitches, respectively. Matheny made a quick trip to the mound but did not call for a new reliever. Rosenthal responded by striking out pinch-hitter Rymer Liriano on four pitches. But when he walked the leadoff hitter, Yangervis Solarte, on five pitches — the four balls weren’t really close to the strike zone — Matheny opted to bring in Seth Maness.
Thanks to some fine defense by Matt Adams and Kolten Wong, Maness was able to finish off the victory but not before putting the tying run on third and moving everybody to the edge of their seats in a game the Cardinals once led 5-0. At the end of the victory handshake line, Matheny had an embrace for Rosenthal that you weren’t sure was more to console or to support.
In his postgame presser, there was little doubt. Matheny went out of his way to show that he has his young closer’s back.
"We just forget how good he’s been. … There’s confidence that he’s going to (do the job) next time," Matheny said. "But right now, especially on the back of the last one he had, we needed to get him some help."
Including his previous outing, Rosenthal has allowed 10 of the past 12 batters he has faced to reach base. Although there have been times this season when he struggled because of a heavy workload, this should not have been one of them. Rosenthal did not pitch Friday or Saturday and threw just five pitches Wednesday. His final three pitches Sunday were timed at 98 mph, indicating velocity is not an issue.
"Overall, he feels good, ball has life, looks like a timing issue more than anything else," Matheny said. "And then confidence. Which comes first, I don’t know. Typically, he’ll come in and pound the zone pretty well. We just have to get him back there."
Rosenthal agreed with his manager’s assessment. "Physically, everything feels really good," he said. "Everything feels like it’s coming out like it should. Obviously, the end result isn’t as good. (The ball’s) not exactly going where we want it every time."
What further clouds the Cardinals’ closer situation is the effectiveness of Pat Neshek, the club’s most reliable reliever. After lefty Randy Choate walked the only batter he faced in the eighth, Neshek needed only eight pitches to put down the Padres’ 4-5-6 hitters. The outing left the sidewinding right-hander with a 0.86 ERA in 52 1/3 innings. He has allowed opponents a .170 on-base percentage and his WHIP is 0.57, both marks that are among the best in the majors — not to mention substantially superior to those recorded by Rosenthal.
While Rosenthal has proven difficult to hit this season — in 56 1/3 innings, he has struck out 73 and allowed only 48 hits, including one homer — his command has been lacking. He already has walked 13 more batters than he did all last season even though he has pitched 19 fewer innings.
But he has 36 saves, two behind major-league leader Francisco Rodriguez of Milwaukee, and, let’s not forget, is in his first season of closing. And while he struggled twice against the Padres, the Cardinals still won both games to take three of four in the series.
To fiddle with bullpen assignments now would be taking a risk. Rosenthal’s confidence would take a hit and Neshek would be taken out of a job in which he has proven very comfortable and into a role with which he has little experience.
Of course, to stay with the status quo just to support your young closer or to avoid change also is gambling, as Matheny knows as well as anyone. Remember last September. He moved Rosenthal into the closer’s role late after Edward Mujica ran out of steam.
At least for now, the manager does not sound close to making a switch. As long as Rosenthal is rested, he’s going to remain Matheny’s man.
"When you see him not out there, more often than not (it’s because) we worked him pretty hard," Matheny said. "We’re going to be very careful about how we move forward and how much work that he’s carrying. We’re not afraid to use the other guys in our bullpen to pick up the days when he can’t. As far as his role, he’s our closer."