WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Trevor Rosenthal sneaked a peek. How could he not?
After throwing a couple of fastballs in the top of the fifth this afternoon at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, Rosenthal decided things were going well enough to take a look at the scoreboard radar gun.
“I did. I peeked,” he said with a sheepish grin. “After I threw the two balls to the second hitter, I kind of peaked at it. I was kind of surprised at how hard I was throwing.”
The entire stadium was, Trevor. Nobody expected to see triple digits flash up there, certainly not in the right-hander’s first game appearance since he tore his elbow ligament 18 months ago.
Yes, Rosenthal’s fastball reached 100 mph this afternoon during the Nationals’ 6-1 exhibition loss to the Cardinals. He got there only once out of his 10 total pitches. But he hit 99 mph the previous pitch. And when he dialed it up enough to get to the magic number, the crowd oohed a bit and the man on the mound almost felt like he needed to apologize.
“I didn’t really want that, either,” he said. “I just wanted to kind of ease into it. But I guess it happens.”
It only happens when you’re blessed with a golden arm. And, in Rosenthal’s case, a new ulnar collateral ligament, thanks to the Tommy John surgery he underwent in August 2017.
Because he missed the entire 2018 season but was fully recovered by October, Rosenthal has been waiting quite some time to pitch in a game again. He reported for spring training raring to go, and the Nationals have had to make sure he doesn’t go overboard yet, given the importance they’re placing on him as their top late-inning complement to closer Sean Doolittle.
So there understandably were plenty of eager eyes in the ballpark today for Rosenthal’s 2019 debut. It may have come against three minor league Cardinals batters, one of whom wore uniform No. 91, but it was an impressive display nonetheless.
Rosenthal retired all three batters he faced, one via strikeout. He threw seven of his 10 pitches for strikes. His fastball started out at 96 mph and peaked at 100 mph.
“There was a big number,” manager Davey Martinez said. “What’s good about that whole deal is that he thought he was throwing 94-95 mph. Which is kind of where we want him to be.”
Indeed, the more important development from the Nationals’ standpoint isn’t that Rosenthal reached triple digits, it’s that he looked smooth and effortless in doing it.
“I feel really strong right now, honestly,” he said. “I feel like if the season started tomorrow, I’d be fine. That might just be the competitor in me.”
Rosenthal admitted it was a bit strange making his return against the franchise that drafted him a decade ago and sent him to the mound 328 times in the big leagues, 190 of those coming in save situations.
But he didn’t bring any extra emotions to the mound with him the way some other pitchers do when they return from major injuries. Maybe because he’s been healthy for a good five months now. Maybe because his current focus is less on his return from injury and more on his debut with a new club.
“I didn’t feel super amped-up,” he said. “I was just excited to compete, especially with a new team. I’m really excited about this team and how good we have the potential to be. Just trying to be a part of that and fit in and do my part. That’s really what has me excited.”
The Nationals are banking on Rosenthal, of that there can be no doubt. Beyond Doolittle, they have no other slam-dunk, sure things in their bullpen. Rosenthal, if healthy, is the closest they have to that.
There’s a long way to go before the Nats know if they made the right move pouncing on Rosenthal early in the offseason, based strictly off one throwing session in Arizona viewed by Jay Robertson, one of Mike Rizzo’s veteran scouts.
But if today’s debut was a glimpse at what may be yet to come, the Nationals will be glad they took the chance.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Martinez said. “His work ethic is incredible. He’s a workhorse. He loves to work. And a testament to him. Coming back off Tommy John, and being able to come back and throw like that, is pretty good.”