Michael Bourn's one-out single in the top of the eighth inning Saturday did more than bring the potential tying run to the plate against Nationals right-hander Tyler Clippard in a 4-1 game. It gave catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who was likely making his last home start as a member of the Nationals, an opportunity to shine in front of an appreciative crowd.
Rodriguez eschews the notion of a farewell tour - he's 157 hits shy of 3,000 for his career and thinks his routine of training five hours every day of the week could help him land a deal somewhere after his two-year contract with the Nationals expires at season's end. But as swansongs go, Rodriguez's on Saturday was something special.
Manager Davey Johnson told Rodriguez to pick a day during the final weekend homestand to start a game and Pudge chose Saturday. With the crowd of 33,986 cheering any time he did something of note, Rodriguez looked every bit the future Hall of Famer, throwing out two runners trying to steal and contributing a single in Washington's 4-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
"I looked at him and he was bouncing around like a 19-year old, in total command of the game," Johnson said afterward. "It was fun to watch."
Said Jayson Werth of Rodriguez: "He's an icon of the game. He's a special talent, the likes of we may never get to see again. As long as we live, I don't know that we'll see another player like that, from that position. If he comes back and gets 3,000 hits, it's a no-brainer. But even without that, he is who he is, with what he means to this club and these guys around here, how much he's helped (Wilson) Ramos and the pitching staff, all the guys, really. He's a great teammate."
Rodriguez made a name for himself as a strong-armed catcher who dared opponents to swipe a base and usually made them regret trying. And Saturday afternoon, he resembled the young, brash thrower who eight times in his 21 seasons threw out more than half the baserunners that challenged him.
Nabbing Atlanta's Brian McCann trying to steal second with one down in the second inning hardly looked difficult, though it deprived the Braves of their first baserunner against Chien-Ming Wang. But when the Braves tried to rally against Clippard in the eighth, Rodriguez emphatically ended the uprising and preserved the Washington lead.
With one out, pinch hitter Brooks Conrad walked and went to third when Bourn, the National League's leader with 56 stolen bases, shot a single to right. Martin Prado took off on an 0-1 cut fastball in the dirt and Rodriguez gunned a Bourn out by half a step for the inning's second out. Prado rthen flew out to right to end the frame.
"I was surprised, to be honest with you. With two or three runs behind and the big guys behind (in the lineup), I was ready to throw in any situation. At the same time, I didn't think (Bourn) was going to go in that situation," Rodriguez said. "My job is to be the quickest that I can and put the ball there on the base. For me, it doesn't matter who's running. As far as numbers, I don't pay attention to numbers."
Johnson wasn't surprised that Rodriguez rose to the occasion, and he understood Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez's decision to turn Bourn loose.
"That was the play of the game," Johnson said. "I can understand them running. That's not a second guess - I'm running, too (because) you want to stay out of the double play. Ideally, you want to get Chipper (Jones) up with a couple of guys on base."
Instead the Braves wasted their lone two-on opportunity of the day and went down meekly in the ninth as Drew Storen notched his 41st save. Rodriguez caught Storen's pitch that went for a swinging third strike by Freddie Freeman, walked to the mound and embraced his closer. Rodriguez will likely get one more start - the season finale in Miami, when Stephen Strasburg is scheduled to pitch for Washington in the final game at the stadium where Rodriguez helped the Marlins win a World Series in 2003 - but Saturday may have been Pudge's last stand at Nationals Park.
Rodriguez acknowledged he was touched by the fans' cheers, especially the standing ovation that came when he was announced as a pinch hitter Friday night.
"Seeing that last night, hearing that last night and today, what can I say? It's awesome," he said.
When asked to reflect on his two campaigns in D.C., Rodriguez said: "I got two good years here, man. What I see is the improivement that we have since I came here. We're getting better, better, better each day. Play hard in the field. This year, the season that we have, I think we play well. As far as the record that we have, I'm pretty pleased with it. We played hard since day one. We battled good teams and we beat good teams. ... The way we finish this season is very positive and next year is going to be a very special year for this ballclub."
Johnson didn't want to pull Pudge after his single to lead off the seventh, knowing that the veteran would have felt embarrassed by departing a game when there was still work to be done. But Werth left no doubts about how Rodriguez's teammates felt about playing alongside a guy bound for the hallowed halls of Cooperstown, N.Y., five years from whenever he decides is the right time to retire.
"How many times do you get to play with an icon of the game?" Werth said. "He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's Pudge, you know? I know what that probably means to a lot of people who have seen him play over the years. I started as a catcher, and I know who Pudge was to me, as a fan, just watching him and all of the good years he had. You get to know the guy over the course of the season, playing with him. Essentially, we live with each other in here. We're here, all day every day, for seven and a half months. You get to know him, and the type of guy he is, type of person he is, how much he cares about the game, how hard he works, his preparation. You get a sense of who he is, and that makes it even more special."