ST. LOUIS -- The crossroads came in Milwaukee when, on the first Friday of May, the Cardinals experienced a sort of finality to the bullpen as they once knew it.
Jason Motte's throwing program stalled that afternoon, leaving him no other option but to proceed with plans to shelve his season and undergo Tommy John surgery. Mitchell Boggs spent the day in transit, leaving Milwaukee to report to the Minors. The league leader in holds a year earlier, Boggs had imploded after being given his first extended chance as a Major League closer.
The bullpen as a unit was 0-5 with a 5.90 ERA, the highest in the Majors. Plans to ride the seventh-, eighth-, ninth-inning sequence of Edward Mujica, Boggs and Motte -- a script that had worked so well late in 2012 -- had weeks before been derailed.
But adjoined to adversity was opportunity, and a pair of right-handed relievers sat poised to seize it. Stability had to start in the back end, where two once-under-the-radar pickups were just beginning to thrive in their new roles. Just weeks after being denied a rotation spot, rookie Trevor Rosenthal was making his mark in the eighth. Simultaneously, Mujica was finding a fit in the ninth.
The latter would go on to be an All-Star; the former could have earned legitimate consideration to join him. And together they have led the resurgence of a bullpen that since that day in Milwaukee has posted a 3.02 ERA, lower than all but three other National League clubs. Only four times since that day have the Cardinals lost a game when leading after seven innings.
"It's been really amazing the way everyone has been filling in at different spots," Rosenthal said. "I think now we're as strong as we've ever been."
Outside of St. Louis, Mujica's arrival last July was the sort of news that merely made the transaction page. Even locally, the trade received little fanfare. It was a lot less involved than the non-waiver Trade Deadline deal general manager John Mozeliak had worked out a year earlier to land Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel.
This was a simple one-for-one player swap -- Mujica went to St. Louis, an underachieving first-round pick, Zack Cox, departed for Miami.
But the move was made with a narrow focus. The Cardinals had a glaring seventh-inning hole, and Mozeliak believed that Mujica had the pitch and poise to fill it well. Mujica did go on to thrive, allowing just three runs and collecting 19 holds in 26 1/3 innings.
He arrived at Spring Training again slotted in for the seventh. Even when Motte went down in late March, there was little public discussion about Mujica serving as a ninth-inning replacement. Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was among the first to suggest a possible fit, telling manager Mike Matheny that he believed Mujica had closer's potential.
About a month later, with Boggs embroiled in monumental struggles, Matheny sent Mujica out to close a one-run game in Philadelphia. Four outs later, Mujica had garnered his first save of the season, the fifth of his career. No other Cardinals pitcher has been needed to save a game since.
"That night was big for me," Mujica said, reflecting on his April 18 appearance at Citizens Bank Park. "I got the save and we got the win, and after that I think Mike had confidence in me. I knew after that that they would start giving me the ball in the ninth."
Mujica not only stabilized the ninth inning for the Cardinals, he has mostly dominated in it. Given his first big league chance to close, Mujica converted his first 21 opportunities before blowing an Independence Day game in Anaheim.
He enters the final three weeks of the season with 36 saves, the third-highest total in the NL. Mujica has a 0.82 WHIP and has issued just three walks in 59 2/3 innings. Highlighting his career-best season was a July invite to the All-Star Game.
"I just think it's one of those situations that when you get traded over here and you fit in well with the guys and you have some success, that builds confidence," said Randy Choate, who was also a teammate of Mujica's in Miami. "I think he's really taken off from that. From what I've seen, his confidence level here -- even when I played with him last year -- just improved. I think Yadi has something to do with that."
Following the lead of catcher Yadier Molina was the first piece of advice Mujica received upon joining the organization. It came from then-bullpen catcher Dyar Miller, who, when asked if he had a report on the hitters, pointed to Molina. "Just follow him," Miller said.
Mujica has implemented that advice almost unfailingly. The first time Mujica shook Molina off this season coincided with his first blown save. Twice, Molina called for fastballs. Twice, Mujica opted instead to throw a changeup. One was hit for a game-tying homer. The other was driven into left field for a game-winning single.
"That's a mistake I can't make anymore," Mujica said after the 6-5 loss to the Angels on July 4. "From now on, I'm just going with Yadi."
Molina's impact is perhaps best noticed in Mujica's increasing reliance on his now signature pitch. The split-finger changeup -- a pitch Mujica learned while working out with friend and Minor Leaguer Yoel Monzon before the 2010 season -- was not the right-hander's primary pitch until arriving in St. Louis.
But Molina likes the unpredictable action of the pitch and has called it with regularity. Now, for the first time in Mujica's career, over 50 percent of his pitches are that split-changeup.
"If that pitch works, why not keep throwing it?" Mujica said. "We use that pitch for a lot of success. Everybody knows I'm going to throw a changeup, but it's one of the pitches that is hard for the hitters to make good contact with."
"The concept of having an out pitch as a changeup for a guy who comes late in the game, I think Trevor [Hoffman] is the best example of someone who did it well," added Matheny. "It's a great pitch. I think it's the most underrated pitch in baseball. Guys that master that pitch, it's a very, very effective pitch."
As critical as that pitch has been to Mujica's career year, so, too, has the assurance of a defined role. After enjoying little consistency of role as he jumped around with the Indians, Padres and Marlins, Mujica has been a deliberate placeholder since arriving in St. Louis. Last year, it was the seventh. This year, he knows he'll be called just a little later.
From that consistency has emerged a routine.
"It was an important thing for me, because when you know where you're going to be, you prepare yourself and you prepare yourself for that situation," Mujica said. "Once I got here, I got a routine. I would get hot in the fifth to prepare myself. I would check out the lineup to see who I might face. I just started thinking about it. It's nice when you have a special role."
The rookie flamethrower
When Mujica joined the Cardinals in Colorado last summer, roster space was created by sending a hard-throwing 22-year-old back to the Minors for more seasoning. Rosenthal packed up his bags that day, leaving the team with four innings of Major League experience. Before Rosenthal left the ballpark, Matheny ensured him that the two would see each other again soon.
The wait would last only 14 days.
Rosenthal went on to cap his 2012 season with 8 2/3 scoreless innings during the postseason. He struck out 15, while allowing two hits and two walks. It was a coming-out party for Rosenthal, who had been mostly undiscovered out of college.
The Cardinals had snagged Rosenthal in the 21st round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft on the recommendation of an area scout who had seen the former shortstop throw 1 1/3 innings in a community college conference tournament. Though Rosenthal was new to pitching, the body type and the velocity stood out. The Cardinals took a chance, hopeful that they could develop Rosenthal once they got him in the system.
The climb was quick for Rosenthal, who shot up three levels in '12. After being considered for a starting rotation spot this spring, the righty eventually settled into a bullpen role. The job as eighth-inning setup man was handed to him once Motte went down in late March.
"Going into Spring Training trying to be in the rotation, when I wasn't, I was kind of disappointed," Rosenthal said. "When we were about to break camp, Mike went around and told me I was going to have a chance to pitch the eighth. I was real excited about that feeling. It gave me some energy, and I was excited to have that role."
The start was a bit wobbly for Rosenthal, who allowed six earned runs in his first 12 2/3 innings. He blew two saves during that span. But a scoreless appearance on April 27 began a string of 20 straight outings in which Rosenthal did not allow an earned run. He has since blown only two more saves.
He is still dazzling with that velocity (Rosenthal's fastball this year has averaged 97 mph) and ranks behind only closers Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen for strikeouts among Major League relievers. Rosenthal has notched 93 in 66 1/3 innings.
"It's a completely different thing to adjust to, throwing every day with that intensity," Rosenthal said. "I'm still learning how to maintain that strength throughout the year. I think the work I did last offseason was very beneficial, and I hope it pays off in October."
Workload has been a buzz word for Rosenthal as of late. In his first full pro season as a reliever, Rosenthal is on pace to make 71 appearances, a total reached only three times by a Cardinals reliever since the start of the 2009 season.
Rosenthal believes he's reaping the benefits of his offseason partnership with veteran Chris Carpenter. Having decided to stay in St. Louis over the winter, Rosenthal met Carpenter at the ballpark on a near-daily basis to work out and to absorb. Rosenthal reported to Spring Training considerably stronger, and that strength has been a necessary foundation for his subsequent work.
Matheny has tried to be proactive against fatigue, too, pulling the reins on Rosenthal's usage over the past two weeks in hopes that will benefit the rookie right-hander in October.
"We thought he was a little bit tired, thought he was a little bit achy, so we backed off of him," Matheny said. "As you've seen, there haven't been a lot of one-plus outings [lately]. With he and Mujica both, we're trying to keep the innings shorter. It just puts a lot of pressure on the other guys to finish what they've started."
Rosenthal says he still desires to one day return to the starting rotation, though his value as a late-inning reliever may work against him in that pursuit. He has the makeup and weapons of a future closer, a role that he could fill as early as next season. With Mujica set to be a free agent at season's end and Motte unlikely to have his rehab wrapped up by season's start, Rosenthal seems as likely a candidate as anyone in the Cardinals' bullpen to assume the ninth-inning duties.
For now, though, he is leaning on his experiences from last October to prepare himself for this postseason push.
"I'm starting to realize now how beneficial that was last year," Rosenthal said. "I've been thinking about that lately. As we get into these games, there is going to be a lot more pressure coming up. I feel more energy than nervousness now."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.