Closers Go Retro In the Bullpen
The closer role can be so volatile in the majors. Young relievers with rocket arms can turn quickly into pitching sensations. Old standbys sent to setup roles can be thrust back into the ninth in an instant.
Francisco Rodriguez has lived through both scenarios.
The Milwaukee Brewers closer leads a pack of veterans who have returned to late-game prominence. LaTroy Hawkins, 41, is the oldest, having picked up his eighth save Monday for Colorado. The Mets have turned to 38-year-old Kyle Farnsworth to help close out games following a season-ending injury to Bobby Parnell and the struggles of Jose Valverde.
But no closer has had as a surprising start as the 32-year-old Rodriguez, who has a Brewers franchise-record with 12 saves by the end of April entering Tuesday. The 13-year veteran has 316 saves, two behind 17th-place Rick Aguilera on the career list.
“One day I will sit down and check out the numbers and see how far and how I happy I (am) to have a nice career. But not right now,” Rodriguez said after picking up a save last week in a 5-2 win over the Cubs at Miller Park.
What makes Rodriguez’s start even more remarkable is his unusual spring training.
Visa problems in his native Venezuela delayed his arrival at camp by about two weeks. Then in mid-March, Rodriguez accidentally stepped on a cactus during an off day.
Jim Henderson, who finished last season 2013 with 28 saves for Milwaukee, was the presumed closer before Rodriguez surprisingly trotted out in the ninth on opening day and proceeded to get the save in a 2-0 win over Atlanta. Manager Ron Roenicke said he had turned to Rodriguez temporarily as Henderson worked to regain velocity.
Rodriguez hasn’t given up the job since.
His own velocity isn’t what it once was, though Rodriguez is following the well-worn path of other veterans who have become more complete pitchers as they age.
“With having the off-speed pitches, he’s got guys guessing on what he’s throwing,” Roenicke said. “When I think he’s going to throw fastball, it’s something else. When I think, ‘OK, here comes the off speed,’ OK here’s the fastball.”