Whether it’s low-, mid- or high-leverage game situations, it doesn’t matter, right-hander Trevor Rosenthal is simply looking for positive outings. After the way the season started for him, where he had lost confidence in his ability to throw strikes, Thursday’s clean ninth inning was a big step.
The Arizona Diamondbacks won the rain-delayed opener over the Nationals 5-0, scoring all their runs before the end of the fourth inning. The game included a 63-minute rain delay and left-hander Matt Grace pitched a pair of scoreless frames following starter Erick Fedde’s exit.
Rosenthal arrived in the ninth inning and struck out the first two batters he faced: Christian Walker with a slider and Nick Ahmed with a 98-mph fastball. Catcher Carson Kelly flied out to left fielder Juan Soto to end the inning. It was a 1-2-3 ninth for Rosenthal. Back in his best days with the Cardinals an outing like that was commonplace. But in this first season with the Nationals, it has not been close to that easy, unable to throw strikes or even throw competitive pitches.
After seven appearances with the club through April 24, Rosenthal had stumbled to a 36.00 ERA. But in his return to the roster June 10, the former 2015 All-Star put together a shutout inning with one walk against the White Sox. Then last night, another shutout inning, this time including a pair of strikeouts.
Rosenthal said he feels one big difference from when he was struggling in April: his current mental state.
“Just been trying not to let my emotions get the best of me like they were earlier,” Rosenthal said. “I was just really excited to be here and trying to stick to my game plan and going to trust my teammates. We’ve got a really good defensive team and good catchers so just trying to work with them and fit in and be another piece of the puzzle to get some wins.”
Nationals manager Davey Martinez understood the game was almost out of reach at the time, down 5-0 with only three outs left, a low-leverage situation, but he still viewed the work of Rosenthal as a positive step forward.
“Absolutely. If there was one thing positive, that was very encouraging,” Martinez said. “And he looked, even in his warmups, he looked very relaxed. Really nice, the ball was coming out really, really nice. Man, he was pumping strikes today and it was great to see.”
Rosenthal said he is now trying to pattern what happened last night to what he did against Chicago, and build off each outing - stay with what works.
“It was similar,” Rosenthal said comparing it to Monday’s appearance versus the White Sox. “I tried not to change too much. That’s where I’m at right now, just being consistent and not getting too high or too low and keep going out there and keep building and hopefully we can keep rolling like we have been and I can help us finish off games.”
When general manager Mike Rizzo signed Rosenthal, he envisioned pairing the veteran with 121 career saves with closer Sean Doolittle, taking care of the eighth and ninth innings. After a disastrous beginning when Rosenthal could not find the plate, that idea seemed a distant, unattainable hope. But does Rosenthal envision, with continued consistency, a possibility he could take on the setup role responsibility again someday?
“I’m always confident in myself and I’ll do whatever is asked of me to go out there and compete for the team,” Rosenthal said. “That’s what I love to do. Obviously, it’ll take time and situations that’ll arise in the future but we know we got a good group of guys and to get where we want to be it’s going to take every last one of us, and I’m just hoping to be a part of that.”
His teammates are pulling for him of course, despite what noise they might hear from the outside world. It was an awful start to the season for the former closer, and there is certainly a long way to go, but shortstop Trea Turner said these outings where Rosenthal returns to getting outs like he did when he was in his Cardinals heyday help build confidence back.
“It was great,” Turner said. “The last two times he threw the ball really well or he’s been really good. Looks like he is commanding the slider very, very well, especially the last two times and tonight, he threw the fastball in the zone a lot and he’s got such good stuff that all you have to do for the most part is make sure you are around the zone so those guys are swinging the bat. Tonight, he was really good and hopefully he can be big for us the rest of the year.”