WASHINGTON -- A car waiting, Trevor Rosenthal piled his locker contents into a duffle bag, pulled on gray sweatpants and braced for the next step of what has been a confidence-wrenching 2019.
He feels better -- at least internally -- following a quick sickness on the road last week in Colorado. His arm feels good. His body feels good. His pride? Hope? Expectations? Those are still ailing, and will be undergoing further work in West Palm Beach, Fla, when Rosenthal arrives at extended spring training Monday night.
He’ll be back on the bullpen mounds he threw from in February, when this all seemed so logical and easy. Rosenthal’s high-end velocity returned as early as the summer of 2018 despite his 2017 Tommy John surgery. But, he waited longer before joining a team. After signing with the Nationals in the fall, Rosenthal went to Florida, a bundle of hair overpowering his cap, throwing hard and anticipating save opportunities when he wasn’t setting up the team’s closer, Sean Doolittle.
Rosenthal’s path since is well-tread ground. He’s not right, incapable of locating his pitches or pinpointing problems. The influence of his ineffectiveness spread throughout the bullpen, then into the manager’s office. Other relievers were used often because Rosenthal’s roster spot was a dormant one. Diminishing returns, widespread problems, bloated ERAs defined Rosenthal’s bullpen mates while he watched. The manager, Davey Martinez, dispatched the other relievers until he was at a loss. “We got a problem in our bullpen and we got to fix it,” Martinez said over the weekend.
Theories about Rosenthal’s non-performance range from mechanics to the specter no pitcher wants looming: the yips. He argues pulling pitches into the left-handed batter’s box is a byproduct of trying to make the perfect pitch, forcing him to hold onto the ball too long. The Nationals thought he was flying open too early, leading to his league-leading total of wild pitches despite just three innings on the mound. Rosenthal -- upbeat throughout a torturous process -- contends his mind is right. Martinez would only go so far as to say they have to figure out what is wrong with Rosenthal.
“I think it’s 100 percent physical,” Rosenthal said. “Obviously, the physical leads to some frustration but no, I don’t think I’m mentally stopping myself from doing anything. But the physical side will definitely help me to mentally be able to take a little bit of a deep breath for sure.”
Watching from afar is one of Rosenthal’s ex-teammates, St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright. He has watched each one of Rosenthal’s outings, undeterred by his personal in-season schedule. They spoke Monday.
The two played together from 2012-2017 in St. Louis, when Rosenthal ascended from 22-year-old, hard-throwing reliever to powerhouse closer. Rosenthal’s opening year in St. Louis was Wainwright’s first following the Tommy John surgery which interrupted his All-Star career.
The start of Wainwright’s return was ugly. His first-half 4.56 ERA came while he grappled with the feel on his pitches. Back-to-back top-three finishes in National League Cy Young voting preceded Wainwright’s ulnar collateral tear. The first months of his return were spent as a below-average major league starter. He hunted for touch and belief start after start.
“I liken it to golf,” Wainwright told NBC Sports Washington. “When you first come back, you might succeed real well in spring training or whatever, and it’s kind of like when you haven’t played golf in a long time. You go out, your first nine, you play really well almost all the time. And you think, you know what? I’ve figured this game of golf out. I’m going to go out and now on this back nine, I’m going to start adding to that, and start shaping my shots a little different -- you end up shooting 46 on the back and you shot 37 on the front and you haven’t played in three months. Baseball’s the exact same way.
“You might have a little early success, like he had in spring training. But learning that feel back takes three, four more rounds. It’s going to take a couple more months for him to get his feel completely back to where it needs to be. But, it’s going to be a great story for him because he’s got incredible stuff. He’s got the right mind to do this, and he’s going to have a great comeback story. I’m just going to go on the record and tell you, at the end of this story, it’s not going to be the beginning of this story. The end of this story is going to be a happy moment for him.”
Wainwright popped a Cheez Doodle in his mouth to punctuate his point. Why is he so sure Rosenthal will resurface? He’s seen it in the past, he says. Rosenthal would blow a save or have a poor outing, then come right back the next day. He also believes Rosenthal’s main affliction is apparent.
“The other day in his Colorado game, he had four or five, probably more than that, seven or eight, pitches that were just off the plate on the first base side that he didn’t get the call on any of them,” Wainwright said. “That couple inches right there is that last little inch or two of extension of his arm swing out front. Once he gets that thing all the way out front and pops it out front, instead of pull hooking it, he’s going to be in great shape.”
Wainwright added: “Physically OK and physically locked on your mechanics is completely different.”
Since being placed on the 10-day injured list because of a viral infection, Rosenthal has looked like a man without a country. He walks to the trainer’s room, out onto the field, hangs around the bullpen group some. Rosenthal relaxed on the right field fence during batting practice Saturday, both arms stretched out for support, watching his teammates prepare for another game without him.
His low usage rate is about to change. The Nationals expect Rosenthal to pitch every other day in West Palm Beach for as long as it takes. Martinez said there is no timeline. Rosenthal thinks his visit will be brief.
“The thing I need is to pitch,” Rosenthal said. “Sitting out there not pitching is going to make me rusty. Getting sick didn’t help and made me unavailable for a couple days and kind of prolonged that. But when I come back, I’m going to be 100 percent ready to go and I expect to be treated that way.”
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