Henry Rodriguez, the enigma of the Nats bullpen for his mind-bending pitches and bouts of wildness, made a sparkling season debut on Thursday evening. He threw the day before in the bullpen but didn’t enter the game.
Against the Miami Marlins in the seventh inning, he fired his pitch high over Juan Pierre, a reminder of the Rodriguez of old. But he found the strike zone on the next two pitches and induced a flyout to right field, and then cruised to an easy 12-pitch inning.
“That’s going to be his role,” Manager Davey Johnson said after the game. “Setting up, late-inning relief. If he’s on the ball club, I’m using him.”
Rodriguez sat down the top of the Marlins order: Pierre, Placido Polanco and Giancarlo Stantion. Polanco grounded out and Stanton struck out on a wicked curveball. What stood out the most about Rodriguez’s outing is that he dialed back his potent velocity. It may have been because it was only his first outing, but as he built his arm strength all spring after sitting out for six months following elbow surgery, he wasn’t throwing the triple digits he often does.
In an interview for a spring feature, Rodriguez admitted that throwing 100 miles per hour was a a consuming goal growing up in Venezuela. Throwing hard is what gets a young prospect noticed, and by 17 he hit 100 mph. After a spring outing in which he hit a few ticks below his 97.6 mph average fastball, Rodriguez said he knows he doesn’t have to throw the hardest possible to get outs.
“It was just a personal goal,” he said in mid March. “When I was younger, I made that my goal, to throw 100 mph. I dedicated myself to that. I forced myself to do that. My thinking was it’s easier to throw strikes than to throw hard. So I focused on throwing hard, the velocity.”
Here are Rodriguez’s at-bats on Thursday, and keep an eye on the velocity. Johnson has said he doesn’t want Rodriguez dialing back his velocity, because early last season he was able to fire 98 to 100 mph with precision. Rodriguez said this spring that “there’s a little more left” on his velocity. Even this week, he said he still working to improve his command.