ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- “It’s really hard to describe,” Trevor Rosenthal said, recalling the pitch that would ultimately end his season. The one where he knew something was wrong.
He thought for a moment, then fell back on the blanket term of ‘discomfort,’ which so often peppers the vernacular discussing pitchers. Though he struggled to describe the ‘what,’ he had no such ambiguity about the ‘when.’
“I’d been feeling pretty good. Really the first night I felt something different, or felt something happen was here against Atlanta on that Saturday,” he said, referring to the Cardinals’ 6-5 win over the Braves on August 12. “The at bat against Freddie Freeman. I felt it on the last pitch I threw to him, and then to the next batter, I just didn’t feel good. I looked up at the scoreboard and saw my fastballs were 92 (miles per hour).”
Rosenthal has averaged the third-fastest fastball in the majors this season. His 98.5 MPH average trails only Aroldis Chapman (99.8) and Joe Kelly (99) among qualified pitchers.
92 wasn’t an odd fluctuation. 92 was a problem. Still, pain is nothing new for pitchers, especially ones who throw as hard and as often as Rosenthal. After all, the ligaments in his pitching arm were examined last year and everything looked strong.
“The way we are, throwing every day, you have ups and downs and just kind of hope it goes away,” he said. “It’s almost normal, the ups and downs of how you feel on a certain night.”
But three days of rest went by and he wasn’t bouncing back. With a 4-2 lead against the Red Sox in Boston, Rosenthal took the ball again. He tried to focus on the situation instead of his elbow. He tried to get ready, to get his body loose.
“I knew I wasn’t feeling good. I didn’t really know how bad I was feeling. I’m not a human radar gun so I don’t know how hard I’m throwing until I get out on the field,” he said.
His first batter was Xander Bogaerts, who hit the second pitch of the at bat deep into the left center stands. The Cardinal closer’s eyes went immediately to the scoreboard.
91 miles per hour.
He walked the next hitter, and though he mustered 95 on the radar gun, something was clearly wrong. He was pulled quickly and was in front of two specialists in the next five days.
Dr. George Paletta, who is the team’s head orthopedic physician, recommended Tommy John surgery. Dr. Neal ElAttrache, a surgeon who has handled dozens of high-profile repairs on athletes across multiple sports, confirmed Paletta’s opinion.
Rosenthal would need to go under the knife, meaning he’ll miss this season and much, if not all, of 2018.
When he spoke Wednesday, Rosenthal was- if not a man in an upbeat mood, certainly one at peace. He still had an easy smile, still answered each question with sincerity and didn’t have any words more choice than ‘bummer’ to describe his situation.
“I think just the timing of it. Being right in the middle of this race, the way my personal season had been taking shape and the way the team has been playing recently. It’s tough timing. I was feeling we were in a groove, I was in a groove and this happened,” he said.
In a groove is putting it lightly. Beginning on July 4, the 26-year-old Rosenthal embarked on a campaign more destructive than General Sherman’s march to the ocean.
Before Boston, he threw 17.1 innings over 15 games and allowed one earned run. He struck out 28 and walked three. Opponents slugged .161 against him.
He had converted seven straight save opportunities before facing the Red Sox. That includes the one he grimaced through against Atlanta, which will be his last for at least nine months.
His loss is a critical blow to the Cardinals, who are trying desperately to stay in the division race despite their pitching turning to ash. The starters have posted an ERA above 8.0 in the past 10 days and averaged less than five innings per start over that stretch. The relief corps is just as ugly, allowing more than half of their inherited runners to score and lugging a group ERA of more than 7.0.
Rosenthal was the beacon in the fog for the Birds; the waypoint that, if reached, meant they were safe. Now they are adrift again, and in rougher seas.
“It certainly creates a need where we previously had a set answer,” General Manager Mike Girsch said Wednesday. Calmly assessing, if understating, the problem.
Seung Hwan Oh, the man who took Rosenthal’s spot as closer in 2016, doesn’t look the part this season. His ERA is 3.69, and lefties are hitting an astounding .351 with a 1.046 OPS against him. He’s still the most likely candidate given his experience in the role, but he’s far from a comforting one.
The best-performing relief arm currently belongs to Tyler Lyons, who has allowed just seven hits and two earned runs since June 28. His last run allowed was on July 7.
“Tyler has been borderline dominant the last few weeks,” Girsch said. “We lost a guy who’s been dominant for years but we have a guy who’s been dominant for weeks, so we have that going for us.”
Manager Mike Matheny said he’d likely go with matchups to start, then ride whoever looks the most comfortable and effective as the games wear on.
That works for Girsch, who indicated there is no real plan of succession on the books.
“I have no particular pecking order. I want to see someone seize the job and I really don’t care who it is,” he said.
While that may work for the rest of the troubled 2017 campaign, it certainly isn’t where the Cardinals want to be going into the next season. If no existing roster name convincingly plays the part of closer, the front office will have a near-impossible laundry list of improvements to make this offseason. Adam Wainwright is struggling with health, Michael Wacha may need more rest or a role change, Rosenthal will be absent and the lineup is still in need of fangs.
“Shutdown closers, middle of the order bats, top of the rotation starters, it’s all the easy stuff,” Girsch said with grin.
Rosenthal will have his surgery next week, and begin rehab in St. Louis with the team. He joked about watching a World Series win while wearing a cast, despite the near-impossibility of that happening with him on the disabled list.
He’ll have a long journey back to the mound, and will approach free agency in 2019 with vastly reduced negotiating power. But Rosenthal is as nonplussed now as he is in the ninth inning.
“That’s just the reality of what we do. Any pitch, any play can cause an injury,” he said with a slight shrug.
Closers really do have short memories.