Consecutive oh-no performances — Rodriguez walked two batters and gave up a walk-off grand slam in Sunday’s loss to Cincinnati and was yanked with one out after walking the bases loaded in Monday’s victory over San Diego — prompted Manager Davey Johnson to issue a “he’s-still-my-guy” vote of confidence for the reliever who has a 100-mph fastball and apparently no clue where it’s headed.
General Manager Mike Rizzo also says the team must roll with Rodriguez on this bumper-car ride. “Those last three outs . . . you know how extremely difficult they are to get,” Rizzo wrote in a text message Tuesday while he was out of town preparing for Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft. “I feel Henry is making great progress as a future shutdown closer.”
If so, it’s occurring in toddler steps. But Johnson and Rizzo have seen enough lights-out moments (in last Saturday’s 10-pitch, three-strikeout save, Rodriguez was as dominant as could be) to remain all-in on him being the right man for the job — at least until closer Drew Storen returns from elbow surgery.
After getting a needed day off Tuesday (Rodriguez pitched in the previous three games), he rebounded well: Rodriguez pitched a scoreless ninth and earned his ninth save in Wednesday’s 7-4 victory over Pittsburgh at Nationals Park.
The good news for the Nationals is that Storen hopes to rejoin the team in early July. And despite Rodriguez’s cover-your-eyes outings, his tortuous growing pains eventually could lead to the Nationals having two shut-the-door closers. Or not.
Since spring training ended, 10 Nationals players have been assigned to the disabled list. Cleanup hitter Michael Morse has yet to play because of a torn back muscle, $126 million man Jayson Werth probably won’t return for months after having wrist surgery and a knee injury has ended catcher Wilson Ramos’s season.
Storen’s absence, though, could wind up being the most costly to the team if Rodriguez fails to find the strike zone with greater frequency.
For now, however, Rodriguez remains the Nationals’ best ninth-inning option. Clearly, he possesses game-finishing talent (Rodriguez’s three-pitch repertoire includes a knee-buckling slider and batter-freezing change-up).
Wisely, Rizzo and Johnson would rather not tinker with their playoff-caliber bullpen. Sure, setup man Tyler Clippard could close. But he’s just perfect in the eighth.
Craig Stammen has been the Nationals’ best reliever. He’s another option if Johnson decided to make a change at closer. But Stammen provides Johnson with bullpen flexibility (he has been effective in many spots). Johnson loves bullpen flexibility.
“You gotta have it to win,” Johnson said. “And I like what we have there. I like it a lot.”
For Rodriguez, it’s great he has the backing of management. His next step should be making believers of the fans.