In the end, the Nationals weren’t about to take a chance on parting ways with a relief pitcher capable of hitting triple digits.
Despite an up-and-down spring, right-hander Henry Rodriguez has claimed the final spot in the Nationals bullpen.
Manager Davey Johnson made the announcement after Friday’s 4-2 exhibition loss to the New York Yankees at Nationals Park, surprising a team public relations official who had just told reporters the word on the Nats’ final roster moves wouldn’t come until Sunday.
“I told you he’d come around,” Johnson said after telling reporters Rodriguez had made the team.
That means left-hander J.C. Romero, signed to a minor league deal a week ago after a strong showing in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico, will start the season at Triple-A Syracuse.
Rodriguez finished spring with a respectable 3.72 ERA in 10 outings. Against the Yankees, he worked a scoreless sixth inning, allowing only a two-out walk to Brett Gardner as part of 5 1/3 scoreless innings from Nationals relievers. Rodriguez got a flyout and two groundouts to end spring training with three consecutive scoreless outings after three straight in which he allowed a run and put his spot on the 25-man opening day roster in jeopardy.
The Nationals could have opted to put Rodriguez, who had surgery in August to remove a bone spur in his pitching elbow, on the disabled list to start the season. But because he is out of options, they couldn’t send him to the minors without passing him through waivers. And pitchers who throw 100 mph don’t usually pass through unclaimed.
“He just didn’t have much spring and nothing in winter,” Johnson said, referring to the fact that Rodriguez skipped winter ball to rehab from surgery.
Johnson has said repeatedly during camp that power arms take a little longer to come around during spring. Rodriguez has steadily improved over his last few outings, but still has to work on his control. He’s issued a walk in six consecutive appearances, though Johnson liked what he saw today.
“He’s got outstanding stuff,” Johnson said. “Fastball, changeup, breaking ball. He started getting a little wild last year when he started (hurting). ... He’s not somebody you’re going to give up on.”
While Rodriguez nailed down the final spot in the ‘pen, Wilson Ramos was named the Nationals’ opening day catcher. That’s quite an achievement for a guy who had knee surgeries in June and July after a May injury that prematurely ended his season.
Ramos said Johnson informed him of the decision during batting practice.
“I’m very excited,” said Ramos. “I’ve been waiting for this moment. ... Eleven months, 10 months - I worked hard for this moment.”
When spring training started, Johnson wasn’t convinced that Ramos would be ready for the start of the regular season. The Nationals brought veteran backstop Chris Snyder to camp on a minor league deal as an insurance policy, but when Snyder was released last week, it signaled that the Nats were sure Ramos could handle the rigors behind the plate.
“The progress he’s made rehabbing himself since, what is it, ... May? ... He looked great all spring. It’s behind him,” Johnson said of Ramos.
For the time being, Ramos will alternate with Kurt Suzuki behind the plate, the manager said. After Ramos catches right-hander Stephen Strasburg in the April 1 opener, Suzuki will work with lefty Gio Gonzalez in the second game. Johnson is resisting naming a No. 1 catcher, saying, “Both of them are one catchers.”
Ramos finished the spring hitting .333, which didn’t hurt his cause. But Johnson was most impressed with the job Ramos did blocking balls and his improved lateral movement, a key step in recovery from surgery.
The shared arrangement will last as long as Johnson thinks it’s beneficial, and it should help keep both catchers fresh early on. Ramos doesn’t mind splitting time behind the plate with Suzuki.
“I can learn a lot from him,” Ramos said. “He’s got more experience than me.”