St. Louis Cardinals

For openers, let the St. Louis Cardinals closer keep his job

St. Louis Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal has 13 saves this year; he had 48 last season and 45 the year before.
St. Louis Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal has 13 saves this year; he had 48 last season and 45 the year before. AP

What to do about Trevor Rosenthal?

I mean, besides biting your fingernails to the quick every time St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny summons Rosenthal to preserve a Redbirds win.

Sixteen times this season, No. 22 has called on No. 44. Fourteen times, Rosenthal has protected the lead.

The other two times? He blew the save — and the minds of every Cardinal fan expecting perfection from their ninth-inning closer.

“It probably is a little more attention vs. when a hitter goes through a slump. They have a chance to work their way out of it,” Rosenthal told reporters in Chicago after saving the Cardinals’ 4-3 win over the Cubs Tuesday night. “In the bullpen, our stuff’s a little more magnified.”

Magnified? Blown absolutely out of proportion: When Rosenthal struggled in fewer than a handful of games earlier this month, suddenly many Cardinal fans forgot his 48 saves and that All-Star Game berth last season, and the 45 saves the year before — 93 all told, the most in baseball in 2015-16.

Even when he gets the save, as he did to nail down the wins against the Cubs Monday and Tuesday night, you could hear the carping: Oh, he gave up two hits and hit a batter the first night, even as he was rescued by a Hall of Fame throw from his Hall of Fame catcher, and he gave up a hit and walked a batter before closing out the second game.

That’s the lot of a closer.

It’s not only: What-have-you-done-for-me-lately?

It’s: Why-weren’t-you-perfect-while-you-did-it?

A fielder can miss a grounder in the third inning of a one-run loss, and it won’t get the attention a blown save receives six innings later.

A hitter can strand three runners in scoring position in the fifth and seventh innings of a one-run loss, and it won’t bring the boobirds like a failed closer trudging off the mound.

That’s a scene we’ve seen several times this month from Rosenthal, who allowed five earned runs in the span of three appearances June 10, 15 and 18.

This for a pitcher who gave up four earned runs in his first 18 appearances in April and May, for an ERA at that point of 2.12. Since then it’s jumped to 4.50, thanks to four ragged outings from June 1 onward.

That’s the tightrope Rosenthal must walk: In 22 of his 28 appearances this year, the other team hasn’t scored. But that leaves the other six, and as such a cloud of uncertainty lingers over him.

“You never can tell if he’s lacking confidence,” Matheny told reporters in Chicago after Rosenthal posted the back-to-back saves in Wrigley. “You can only tell that by the kind of pitches he’s making, if he’s defensive in how he’s pitching.

“I saw him aggressive (Tuesday), using his breaking ball, using his changeup and making some nice pitches with his fastball.”

Such are the no-margin-for-error expectations facing Rosenthal and every other closer in the game today.

How come, I wonder, hitters can fail 70 percent of the time, and they make the All-Star Team and earn millions?

But pitchers — especially closers — can make one or two bad pitches in 30 offerings to the plate and be roundly scolded as a bum.

And so the ripping of Rosenthal, who set the Cardinals team record for saves in a season last year, with 48 in 51 save chances. This, mind you, for a franchise that has employed the likes of Lee Smith, Jason Isringhausen, Bruce Sutter, Dennis Eckersley, Todd Worrell, Tom Henke and Al Hrabosky.

With that history, maybe we’re all a bit spoiled. But it sure seems our patience runs thin whenever Rosenthal stubs his toe.

Perhaps it’s just part of the peril of pitching in the ninth, which is just plain different than pitching in the innings leading up to that.

Pitch well in the eighth, and you hand the baseball to another guy to get the job done as you sit back and watch. Pitch well in the ninth, and you get a hug from Molina and handshakes from everyone else.

I’m reminded of the angst Eckersley said he felt whenever the sixth or seventh inning rolled around, watching from the bullpen and fearing he’d fail and wreck the hard work his teammates had put in.

“People say baseball players should go out and have fun. No way,” said Eckersley, who had 66 saves for the Cardinals in 1996 and 1997; a year later he retired after winding up a Hall of Fame career by returning to Boston for one last season. “To me, baseball is pressure, I always (felt) it.

“This is work. The fun is afterwards, when you shake hands.”

Which is why the solution for Rosenthal is patience, not not to turn to Seung Hwan Oh or Kevin Siegrist instead. Their work in the seventh and eighth innings are not as pressure-filled simply because Rosenthal is sitting there waiting for the ninth.

Think a time-share involving Rosenthal, Oh and Siegrist would work? I’m reminded of the old saying about NFL quarterbacks: If your team has two quarterbacks, it really doesn’t have any.

The fact is, this team is built around certain key players — Yadier Molina leading from behind the plate, Adam Wainwright leading the starting rotation, Matt Carpenter leading off the batting order, and Rosenthal leading from the back end of the bullpen.

Plainly put, this team will succeed if that group succeeds. If the four falter or need to be replaced, the team will stumble along with them.

For good or ill, over a long season, baseball players need to know their roles day in and day out. Putting Rosenthal’s head on a swivel – “Is somebody warming up while I’m pitching here?” – could harm his psyche, and expose Oh and Siegrist to pressure that is unfair and unproductive.

Which is why the Cardinals would be wise to ride the tide with Rosenthal, knowing his multiyear track record while watching that radar gun hit 98 and 99 most nights.

“I always knew if I was able to shake the closer’s hand at the end of the game, we won the game,” Tony La Russa was wont to say during his 16 seasons at the Cardinals’ helm. “Anybody else could have a good game — Albert (Pujols) could get four hits – and we might lose. But if the closer was successful, the team was, too.”

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at 618-239-2512, or follow him on Twitter @JoeOstermeier