MIAMI - When the Nationals traded for Henry Rodriguez last December, making the reliever the centerpiece of a package they got in return for an outfielder with a career .837 OPS, they made bold proclamations about his stuff, saying the hard-throwing right-hander had reined in his control problems and could wind up as a closer in the near future.
But for the first 6 1/2 months of their on-field relationship with Rodriguez, they only saw flashes of what they hoped they were getting in the Josh Willingham trade. Rodriguez’s arrival to spring training was delayed by visa issues, and in his first game, he threw just eight of 24 pitches for strikes. Later in the spring, the team found a neck issue was throwing Rodriguez’s mechanics off-line, and after finally coming to the majors in late April, he took the Nationals through a Cliffs Notes version of his worst moments on May 8.
Rodriguez walked three batters, threw two wild pitches and got just nine of his 27 pitches over the plate for strikes that day in a loss to the Marlins. The Nationals’ confidence in him was so low, manager Jim Riggleman essentially made Rodriguez off-limits in a May 12 game against the Braves, which the team lost in 11 innings after Riggleman asked Doug Slaten to pitch a third inning for the first time in his career, rather than going to Rodriguez. After that game, Riggleman said Rule 5 pick Brian Broderick - not Rodriguez - would have been the next option out of the bullpen had the game continued past the 11th inning.
The 24-year-old, though, will continue to get chances because of two things: a fastball that regularly breezes past 100 mph and a slider that, when it’s on, darts like a balloon that’s just had the air let out of it yet still reaches its target. He’s finally harnessing those things toward the end of the season, and after an up-and-down year with Rodriguez, it looks like the Nationals might finally be getting what they traded for.
Rodriguez has allowed just three runs in 13 appearances this month, and what’s more, he’s only walked four batters. The last week has probably been his best of the season; he snuffed out an eighth-inning rally in Philadelphia last Tuesday and got his first career save the next day. On Sunday, Rodriguez struck out three batters in an 11-pitch tour de force against the Braves, throwing a 101-mph fastball that had Braves catcher David Ross trying to bunt with an 0-2 count and firing an 88-mph slider that left Jack Wilson frozen and dumfounded to end the inning. Nationals players were practically giggling about those two pitches after the game, and were still buzzing about them Monday afternoon.
And with Drew Storen needing a night off on Monday, Rodriguez collected another save without the help of a strikeout, overcoming a leadoff single to get two groundouts, including a double play that ended the game.
The Nationals have put an unusually heavy burden on Storen this season - he has saved 42 of the team’s 79 wins, and among closers with 40 saves, only the Padres’ Heath Bell and the Pirates’ Joel Hanrahan have locked down a higher percentage of their team’s victories. As the team continues to improve, manager Davey Johnson has said he needs another ninth-inning option for when Storen needs a break.
If Rodriguez becomes that option, it allows the Nationals to keep Tyler Clippard in the setup role where he’s been so valuable this season. They’ll also have Ryan Mattheus and Sean Burnett back next season, and Cole Kimball will return from shoulder surgery by the middle of next year. But as many options as they have, it’s Rodriguez’s stuff that makes him the most intriguing one.
And if he’s finally figured out how to control it, the Nationals might really have something.
“Henry, to me, has all the talent to do it,” manager Davey Johnson said, “and he’s grown in a lot of ways from the start to where he is now. That’s very important for the organization and for him. I’ve been more trusting with him, and I’ve given him the opportunity to now save two ballgames. He’s done a decent job.”