Ivan Rodriguez made a very good play Saturday afternoon, the kind of play that, 21 years into his major league career, still sends him spinning and fist-pumping and leaping up and down. He made a play that is so simple it basically defines his job, yet so tricky only a handful of others could have done it. He caught a ball and tagged out a runner at home plate.
With two outs in the ninth inning, Logan Forsythe ripped a single through the hole on the left side. Laynce Nix charged the ball in left field as Chase Headley rounded third and headed home. The Nationals trailed by just one, making Headley a crucial run and forcing Nix to forego the cutoff man. He made a strong throw that sailed all the way to the plate.
This is where Rodriguez came in. The idea of blocking the plate – how it’s done, whether it should even be part of baseball – has come under intense debate since Giants catcher Buster Posey broke his leg in a collision this week. When Rodriguez was young, he would try to block the plate and hit the runner back, stand his ground. He learned the proper way to make a tag at home is not necessarily the tough way. “Sometimes,” he said, “you have to make an adjustment in how to get outs.”
So Saturday, as he waited for Nix’s throw, he stood in front of the plate. As the ball came closer, he shuffled quickly to his left. He watched the ball, picked up where the was and registered the angle of the throw.
In one motion, with Headley bearing down, Rodriguez slid to the left, scooped the ball an inch from the ground, stuck out his knee to block Headley’s hand and made the tag. Out. Rodriguez spun away, pumping his first.
“It was a great play,” Rodriguez said. “That’s why I was very excited. That’s a very hard ball to catch.”
Said Nix: “An outstanding play by a Hall of Fame catcher.”
Said Manager Jim Riggleman: “He’s the best I’ve ever seen at that. He’s like a middle infielder out there, but he’s got a catcher’s mitt on.”
As a young catcher, Rodriguez would have perhaps taken a different approach, trying to use muscle to give Headley a hit. He learned nimble feet and gracefulness work better. There are times, though, when a catcher cannot avoid a collision. Rodriguez said the important thing to do is absorb the hit rather than try to deliver punishment. He basically learned to subvert his instincts — how not to tense up before a car wreck.
“Those kind of plays like that, sometimes you get hit hard,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes you have to run and tag the home plate. Sometimes, you have to be very soft to receive the hit. You have to be soft and just jump away. Let him go, and let it roll. But if you tag and go with power also forward, you’re getting hurt. The easier, the softer you can be to receive an impact at home plate, the better. The impact, just let it roll.”
The most famous play Rodriguez made like that came in 2003, when he sealed the Marlins’ NLDS victory by blocking the plate and taking the brunt of a wicked collision with J.T. Snow. “That one hurt a lot,” he said. “But I got the out.”
Surely, before his career ends, Rodriguez will have to endure another collision. He will catch the ball, brace himself, relax his body, absorb the blow and roll away. He will take the hit more than give it, and still walk away hurt less than the runner, form and experience prevailing over raw violence.
“And then,” he said, “you show the ball.”
>>> One more note on Rodriguez, which also came up thanks to that Posey play: The possibility of Rodriguez winding up a replacement for Posey gained some traction, as it would be an obvious possible fit. Rodriguez said he would prefer to stay with the Nationals, and General Manager Mike Rizzo has not mentioned the possibility of any trade to Rodriguez.
“Nobody told me anything,” Rodriguez said. “Rizzo, nobody. I can tell you one thing. I feel good where I am. I think this is a great team to be, a nice group of guys. I told Rizzo that. I’m not thinking about it. I’m here working for the Nationals now. I’m focusing on winning ballgames and be a good teammate. Those rumors, I’ve heard that a whole in my 21 years. This is a great organization, and I’m happy where I am.”