From the start of spring training, Nationals manager Davey Johnson preached patience. Henry Rodriguez, who led the league in wild pitches in 2011 and managed to throw 10 in 29 1/3 innings of work in 2012, continued his wild ways this spring, but the Nats' 70-year-old skipper said it was just a matter of time before the right-handed reliever figured things out.
Rodriguez's 2012 campaign saw him temporarily assume the closer's role and save nine games before flaming out rather quickly and eventually, after a series of setbacks and injuries, end up going under the knife for the first time in his career. When he returned to the mound this spring and continued to struggle to throw strikes, Johnson said that it was unfair to judge the reliever who was behind other pitchers in terms of preparation for the season.
"He missed half of last year and then all winter ball," Johnson explained during spring camp. "And early in the spring, we couldn't get him on the mound because of medical restrictions. So he has not been afforded the opportunity everybody else in the bullpen or on the ballclub had all spring. His has been more of a short spring."
Yes, he continued to have command issues, the Nats skipper admitted, but there were signs of improvement and the velocity was there. "He's throwing 98 (mph)," Johnson joked, "it just ain't going over."
The manager explained at the time that both he and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo continued to have faith in Rodriguez. In an interview on 106.7 the Fan in June 2012 when Rodriguez was on the DL with an injured finger, Rizzo explained why he continued to believe in a pitcher many people hoped the Nationals would give up on. Part of it was Rodriguez's talent. Another concern was giving up on him too soon and having him find himself in another uniform.
"This is a 25-year-old guy that's got stuff off the charts," Rizzo told 106.7 the Fan's Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier. "We're going to be extremely patient with this guy and this guy is going to be a terrific, major league, back-of-the-bullpen guy in the very, very near future."
"You give up on these guys too quick," the Nats' GM explained, "and they turn out to be Joel Hanrahan on you and it makes you look pretty bad."
Hanrahan, of course, is the hard-throwing former Nationals reliever who was traded to Pittsburgh in 2009 after blowing five saves in 10 opportunities over the first three months of that season. Something clicked after the trade though, and he went on to save 82 games with the Pirates before he was dealt to the Boston Red Sox this past winter.
The Nationals weren't about to give up on Rodriguez so quickly. The reason for their patience? As Johnson explained thissSpring, "If he's healthy, he's got three off-the-chart big league pitches. And what has he pitched, nine innings this spring, and given up three hits? He's tough."
While speculation continued all spring about whether or not the right-hander, who was out of options, would make the opening day 'pen, Johnson continued to have faith. "I'm certainly not anywhere close to giving up on Henry," he said, and when the roster was set for the season, Rodriguez was once again in the bullpen. The control issues haven't completely disappeared, and one early-season outing in Cincinnati had some wondering about the decision to keep him on the roster. Slowly but surely, however, Rodriguez has been coming around.
In six outings after the rough appearance against the Reds, the 26-year-old flamethrower (whose velocity is down a tick from 97-98 mph average to 95-96 so far this season according to Fangraphs.com) has walked five, struck out five and given up just two hits and one earned run while posting a 1.29 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .087/.250/.087 line in seven innings.
Johnson was particularly pleased with Rodriguez's most recent outing, which saw the reliever throw two scoreless against St. Louis on 30 pitches earlier this week.
"Like I said," Johnson told reporters the morning after that relief appearance, "he didn't have any winter ball and he went through that arm operation and it's kind of a trust thing. The more he gets more comfortable and the more he feels stronger, the better he's going to do."
There was a moment there, however, when Rodriguez walked the first batter he faced in his second inning of work and balked the Cardinal into scoring position that had Johnson wondering.
"My trust isn't quite there," Johnson admitted, "because after he started a little slow, I had to get up a pitcher that worked the day before, (Ryan) Mattheus. That was the only negative effect, that I didn't want to go to, but I'm getting more comfortable with him out there."
A groundout and swinging strikeout followed, and Rodriguez completed a second inning of work, sparing the rest of the 'pen.
"He's nasty when he's getting more than one pitch over," Johnson said, "He showed that in the nine saves he had early in the year last year."
And he's showing that early again this season, and rewarding his manager's faith.
Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.