Rodriguez walked the first batter of the ninth, melted down trying to field a bunt and then allowed Daniel Murphy’s game-winning single, all without recording an out. Rodriguez had thrown like the most dominant pitcher on the planet all spring, including against the batter he struck out to end the eighth inning Monday. But then he found out what the Nationals and Storen know: The ninth inning is different.
“This is the first time in a pressure situation, but he’s certainly capable of doing that,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I’m very pleased with Henry and where he’s at. Just one of those things.”
If the ninth inning shook Rodriguez, he did not show it Monday night. After Murphy’s single, Rodriguez walked off the mound slowly, staring straight ahead, betraying no emotion. In the clubhouse, reporters gathered around him. Rodriguez had never before given a group interview in English. Monday, he agreed to stand up and speak.
“Nobody wants to go out there in the ninth and walk the first batter,” Rodriguez said. “I feel pretty bad about myself.”
Rodriguez overwhelmed hitters all spring training, harnessing his 100-mph fastball and physics-defying curveball. In his season debut on Saturday, he struck out the final three batters he faced in a three-run game. The question remained: How would Rodriguez handle the tightest of situations?
“I’m thinking the same,” he said. “I feel the same.”
Rodriguez led off the ninth inning by walking pinch hitter Mike Baxter on five pitches. Mets Manager Terry Collins called on Ruben Tejada to bunt, and on a 2-2 pitch he pushed one back to Rodriguez. That is when the damage began.
Rodriguez scooped the ball, turned and looked to second. He may have had a play, but the umpire blocked his view of Ian Desmond covering the base. Rodriguez turned to first base. His double-clutch forced him to rush. He side-armed a throw, which caused the ball to veer toward the runner and dart toward the dirt.
Tejada reached first base at roughly the same time as Rodriguez’s low throw to second baseman Danny Espinosa, covering first. As Tejada collided with Espinosa, he smacked him incidentally on the head with his elbow. The ball squirted away. Espinosa was dazed.
“I just needed a second,” Espinosa said. “I’m fine.”
Espinosa scampered after the ball in foul ground, having lost his glove in the collision. When Baxter slipped between third and home, Espinosa held the ball for a moment, not wanting to throw behind Baxter and let him score. He fired to third — “a perfect strike,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said — just late as Baxter scrambled back to the bag.