- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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St. Louis Cardinals fans have been feeling a little jittery when closer Trevor Rosenthal enters games -- and with good reason. He hasn't been the same dominant ninth-inning reliever we saw in October, when he faced 40 batters, retired 33 of them and struck out 18. After spending most of the season as a setup reliever, Rosenthal's scoreless postseason was a big key to the Cardinals reaching the World Series.
For the most part, Rosenthal simply blew hitters away; 149 of his 174 pitches in the playoffs were fastballs, averaging 97.7 mph and touching 100 mph multiple times. Batters knew the fastball was coming and still couldn't touch it. His ascendant performance had many expecting him to be one of the premier closers in 2014. Maybe not Craig Kimbrel, but one of a handful of guys lining up behind him.
Instead, as we saw on Sunday when the Braves rallied for two runs in the ninth to pull out a 6-5 win, Rosenthal hasn't been lights out and is 0-2 with a 4.98 ERA, two blown saves and 14 walks in 21 2/3 innings. His velocity is down just a bit from what we saw in the postseason, as he's averaging 96.2 mph on his fastball and has yet to touch triple digits on the radar gun. But command has been Rosenthal's biggest problem, as witnessed by the high walk total.
On Sunday, working for the fourth straight day (more on that in a second), Freddie Freeman led off with a first-pitch line-drive single to left field, beating the Cardinals' shift. Working ahead in the count, Rosenthal struck out Chris Johnson and got Andrelton Simmons to pop out, but pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit drilled a 96-mph fastball into the right-field corner for a double, Freeman holding at third.
Rosenthal put in a bind
Pinch-hitter Evan Gattis then stepped in and Rosenthal, perhaps a bit cautious after giving up two first-pitch hits or told to work carefully after a meeting at the mound, fell behind with two fastballs off the plate, at which point Cardinals manager Mike Matheny elected to intentionally walk Gattis and pitch to Jordan Schafer.
I'm not usually a big fan of loading the bases in this type of situation since, protecting a one-run lead, Rosenthal is especially forced to throw strikes or make the perfect pitch to avoid a hit. Keep in mind: He has struggled with walks all season, was working for the fourth day in a row and Matheny elected to go against the platoon advantage to face the left-handed Schafer. In defense of Matheny, Schafer was just 2-for-26 on the season, including 0-for-2 in this game, so Matheny elected to go after the weaker batter.
I probably would have gone after Gattis, a guy batting .242 with a .278 OBP -- with five walks and 30 strikeouts, so he's the kind of batter you can pitch to. Throwing four days in a row, I'm not sure you wanted to rely here on Rosenthal's ability to throw strikes.
Anyway, against Schafer, Rosenthal threw eight fastballs, all 97 and 98 mph. He threw three balls way up and out of the zone and Schafer fouled off two 3-2 pitches before finally walking on a 98-mph four-seamer at the knees. It was at the knees, right at the bottom of the zone, too close to take in that situation, but Eric Cooper called it a ball so the Braves caught a break. But the Cardinals also put themselves into that bases-loaded situation with no margin for error.
That was it for Rosenthal after 23 pitches. Carlos Martinez came on and threw a wild pitch and the Braves won.
Back to that four days in a row thing. Was it a mistake to use Rosenthal? He had thrown 26 pitches over 1 2/3 innings on Thursday, 17 pitches on Friday and nine pitches on Saturday. Matheny didn't have any issues going to his closer once again.
"It came down to one pitch right there which maybe could have been called [a strike]," Matheny told reporters after the game. "We were one pitch away. He's a tough kid and he wanted the ball today. As soon as he got to two outs, it's his game. Today it just did not work out."
Rosenthal refused to blame his recent usage.
"Physically I felt good and mentally I was ready to go," he said. "No one feels worse than me, walking in the run that eventually loses the game. But you have to bounce back. There will be another opportunity. You just have to learn from it."
Managers rarely use their closers four days in a row. Only Francisco Rodriguez has saved four games in four days in 2014, and only Joe Nathan and Edward Mujica (with the Cardinals) did so in 2013. Only Grant Balfour and John Axford did it in 2012.
Before you argue that managers have gone soft, that's not completely true. Dennis Eckersley pitched four days in a row just once in his career. Mariano Rivera did it just three times. Going back a generation, Bruce Sutter did it five times and Goose Gossage twice.
I'm not going to fault Matheny too much for this one, however. No, the blame is better placed on Matheny for using Rosenthal in a 4-1 game on Saturday or even a 5-2 game on Friday. If his closer wasn't sharp pitching a fourth day in a row, look back to wasting with him with three-run leads.
Carpenter and Craig are not the same
A couple more quick notes on the Cardinals. Rosenthal isn't the only Cardinals player lacking some of the magic of 2013 so far this season. Take Matt Carpenter, an MVP candidate last year. Carpenter laced line drivea all over the field last year, hitting .318 while leading the National League with 199 hits and 55 doubles. That helped him score 126 runs, another league-leading figure.
Carpenter had a big game on Sunday, going 2-for-2 with three walks, raising his average to .265. But he's not driving the ball with the same authority, with just seven doubles and home runs. Compare his hit charts from 2013 and 2014:
Look all those doubles in the gaps and down the right-field line in 2013. Carpenter had 73 extra-base hits last year and 301 total bases (third in the NL), putting himself into scoring position on a regular basis. He's on pace for just 30 extra-base hits this year, one reason the Cardinals have struggled at times to score runs. He's not killing the team, because he's getting on base via walks (.371 OBP), but he's clearly not the same hitter.
Allen Craig developed a reputation as a clutch hitter by hitting .427 with runners in scoring position the past two seasons. But as we've seen time and again, clutch hitting isn't a "proven" skill. Look, Craig's record was pretty remarkable, considering it covered 301 plate appearances. But he's not a .427 hitter. He's batting .220 with RISP in 2014, including 0-for-3 on Sunday. He's hitting .226 overall with four home runs. The lack of power from Carpenter and Craig is a major reason the Cards are 29th in the majors in home runs, with just 23.
OK, despite all that bad news, it wasn't a horrible week for the Cardinals. They hit rock bottom with a 17-5 loss to the Cubs on Monday to drop to 19-20, but then won four in a row before Sunday's defeat. Sunday also saw the return of Jaime Garcia, who pitched seven innings. He adds more depth to a rotation that is second in ERA in the NL behind the Braves.
Still, the Cardinals are 23-21, hardly cause for alarm but not playing like that best team in the NL that I expected back in March. If they do turn things around and start playing like the team many expected, I suspect Rosenthal, Carpenter and Craig and be big reasons why.