VIERA, Fla. - On Thursday, after reliever Henry Rodriguez had delivered yet another scoreless inning of work without allowing a base runner, Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty turned to manager Davey Johnson and delivered a sentence which would've been laughable not all that long ago.
"Can you believe Henry probably has the best command on the staff?" McCatty said.
Yes, McCatty was referring to the Henry Rodriguez who had 14 wild pitches last season, nine more than any other Nationals hurler. He was referring to the Henry Rodriguez whose 45 walks in 2011 rivaled the base-on-ball totals of starting pitchers who had thrown nearly three times as many innings, and the Henry Rodriguez who, on occasion, has been known to send a screaming fastball all the way to the backstop.
This spring, however, "Bad Henry" is nowhere to be found. It's been nearly all positive for the 25-year-old fire-balling Venezuelan this camp, as he's been able to control his triple-digit fastball, find a groove and minimize the wildness which to an extent has limited his promising career.
"He's in a real good spot right now," Johnson said yesterday, after Rodriguez struck out one in a scoreless frame against the Orioles.
Overall this spring, Rodriguez has yet to give up a run in seven innings. Perhaps even more impressive, however, is that he's allowed just five total base runners (two hits, two walks and one hit batter), while still striking out six.
"He's picking up what he did last year," Johnson said. "He's been great. Staying within himself, throwing a lot of quality pitches. It's nice to watch. Under control. He looked like he was pitching at 96 (mph) instead of trying to pitch at 100. He's nasty. Much calmer, under control. And that's what I basically saw the last two months of (last) season."
Johnson, who took over the managerial reins late last season, watched up close as Rodriguez found a zone in August and September. The righty allowed an earned run in just two of his final 22 appearances last year, lowering his ERA over a full point and allowing him to end the season with a 3.56 ERA.
Rodriguez has been pitching so well, in fact, that Johnson said yesterday he would consider using the hard-throwing reliever in save situations if closer Drew Storen isn't ready to open the season because of elbow inflammation. That idea might have made some Nats fans shudder around this time last season, when Rodriguez was posting a 7.71 spring ERA, but Rodriguez has changed his mindset since then, and the results have been impressive.
"I just basically am learning from the years I've been having," Rodriguez said recently, with teammate Andres Blanco serving as his interpreter. "Now, I know I don't need to do too much. I just concentrate on my pitch and the location.
"The years before, I tried to overdo it too much. Now, I know this. I realize that I need to take off a few miles and (pitch) under control."