If you wanted to know the ceiling for Henry Rodriguez, he showed it Sunday afternoon in an obscenely dominant seventh inning. He had his teammates giggling, gasping and trying to find ways to describe him after a 1-2-3, three-strikeout seventh that including at least one player effectively waving a white flag. He threw several 101-mph fastballs and finished his inning off with an 88-mph slider.
“I did not want to come in and pitch after that,” Tyler Clippard said. “That was impressive. He’s got tremendous stuff. Today, I don’t think you’re going to see that out of anybody in the league.”
Rodriguez, as you know, has struggled with control and consistency this season. He’s thrown 14 wild pitches and walked 45 in 64 2/3 innings. But in his last 21 games, Rodriguez has allowed three earned runs in 20 1/3 innings. He has also shown glimpses of how utterly dominant a reliever who throws a 90-mph changeup can be. Sunday was the best example.
“I told him today: How he pitched, nobody can hit it,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “You keep doing that, nobody can hit it.”
Rodriguez began his performance with a four-pitch strikeout of Jason Heyward, who swung through a 100-mph heater for strike three. Ramos could tell Rodriguez was keeping the ball down, as pitching coach Steve McCatty has implored him to do all season.
Rodriguez got ahead of the second batter he faced, David Ross, by throwing 100-mph and 101-mph fastballs past him. At that point, Ross basically gave up. He tried to bunt for a base hit with an 0-2 count, and he deflected the 101-fastball foul, straight back.
“That’s the best complement you can get,” closer Drew Storen said. “He knew he had no chance.”
The final batter Rodriguez faced was Jack Wilson. He got three fastballs of at least 100-mph. With the count 1-2, he unleashed an 88-mph slider. Wilson buckled and leaned back, only to watch the ball dive into the strike zone at his knees. He walked off the field with his face blank, as if trying to register what he had been victim of.
“A Nintendo pitch,” Storen said. “It’s like when you create a player and max him out.”
The final tally for Rodriguez’s inning: 11 pitches, nine strikes, seven fastballs of at least 100 mph and three strikeouts.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Storen said. “It was unfair. That’s a tough act to follow. 101 every pitch? You’ve got to tip your cap. We gave him a standing O in the bullpen and I don’t think anybody’s doing that for anyone else. It was a lot of fun to watch. It was, I don’t even know how to describe it, really. It was a whole other level. He’s got that. It’s just a matter of consistency for him. He’s come a long way this year and I think he’s going to be a big part of our bullpen next year.”
Even at his most implosive, few batters have hit Rodriguez hard. He has allowed one home run to the 292 batters he faced. The league is slugging .254 against him, the 12th best among major league relievers.
The idea of Rodriguez pitching at the level he has shown lately lifts the ceiling on how good the Nationals’ bullpen can be. Already, the Nationals’ bullpen has been the best part of the team for two years.
“It makes us feel really good and the other teams really scared,” Clippard said. They don’t want to face Henry throwing 100 and so on and so forth. It gives us confidence. We’re just trying to continue to stay the path and get better and improve and be more consistent and do the little things. As all those cliches go. But they’re true. I think everyone sees that. Myself and those other guys see that and know what we have here in the future. If everything stays the way it is, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”