Rodriguez showing confidence in closer role

Quickly, name the leader in saves for the Nationals after 15 games.

Brad Lidge?

Drew Storen?

Tyler Clippard?

Keep guessing.

It is right-hander Henry Rodriguez, who showed how far he has come as a closer Friday night in a tough ninth inning matchup with the Miami Marlins.

Battling the heart of a lethal Marlins order while holding a 2-0 lead, Rodriguez got a couple of key outs, but also walked two batters and uncorked a wild pitch.

Last year, that might have rattled the young reliever to the point of becoming unhinged and losing the lead and the game.

But the 25-year-old Santa Barbara, Venezuela, native stayed with it. He focused on catcher Jesus Flores’ pitch calls, coaxing Marlins center fielder Chris Coghlan into a force out to end the game.

Rodriguez earned his team-leading fourth save of the season. He is 4-for-4 in save opportunities this season, after recording only two saves in his previous 92 games with the Oakland A’s and the Nationals.

Manager Davey Johnson has built so much confidence in the 101-mph fireballer that he wanted to put Rodriguez in last night’s deciding situation and see how he would react. He had the choice of a rested veteran closer Lidge or Rodriguez. Johnson went with the youngster.

“I wanted to really test Henry,” Johnson said of Friday’s decision to put Rodriguez in the game. “We got that insurance run, which made it nice. Henry has done such a great job, I threw the cookie his way. He can handle it.”

Johnson stayed with Rodriguez after a tough loss at the New York Mets, April 9. Rodriguez has since responded. In six games since that setback, Rodriguez has retired 18 of 22 batters faced, striking out five.

Rodriguez has only been with the Nationals since December 2010, when he arrived from Oakland with outfielder Corey Brown in exchange for veteran bat Josh Willingham. Rodriguez has advanced so much that the skipper believes the hurler can play the closer role with success.

“I am proud of Henry,” Johnson said. “I think Henry has handled everything very well. He made a lot of progress and really earned the right to close last year. His start this year certainly qualifies him to be a bona-fide closer. If they throw a lot of right-handed hitters at us, I am confident with either one (Lidge or Rodriguez).”

That is a big statement for a pitcher who has had trouble with his command at times and still needs polish in his fielding off the mound. But pitching coach Steve McCatty believes Rodriguez has put himself in a position where the mistakes are minimized because of the self confidence the Venezuelan is beginning to display.

“He has matured more and he is relaxed,” McCatty said. “Every now and then he has the point where he overthrows. But, he has really made some big strides. He looks a lot more confident and comfortable on the mound. We are all really happy where he is.”

This is the potential that general manager Mike Rizzo saw when they first decided on Rodriguez as a piece of the Oakland trade. With Drew Storen recovering from elbow surgery, Rodriguez has proven he can step up into the most vital role in the bullpen: closer.

That is another reason why the Nationals have started off so well. Rodriguez is now a critical link to finishing a game instead of a question mark just trying to get through an inning.

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