Henry Rodriguez, despite struggles, will get time to save his role

Jason Reid
Columnist May 16, 2012

You don’t have to be a sabermetrics whiz to know the numbers are piling up against Washington Nationals closer Henry Rodriguez, who has been as ineffective recently as a JP Morgan Chase trader.

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.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

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.

So far, the team’s ticket-paying, television-watching supporters rightfully have doubts about Rodriguez. He hasn’t consistently displayed the type of tough-as-bolts psyche closers need to persevere under game-ending pressure.

The guy the Nationals are relying on to put out “fires” has essentially toted oily rags and kerosene to the mound in several appearances. You can’t have that.

Johnson gets it. He knows how this works. When inexperienced closers struggle, “you’re gonna have your naysayers. That’s just the way it is. But it ain’t easy. Closers . . . hey, they’re not created overnight. Henry . . . I see tremendous upside. It’s there. There’s a lot that goes into [closing]. But I see it.”

Throughout his seen-it-all managerial career, Johnson has nurtured many would-be closers. Their common trait? Power arms. Closing is a hard-throwers game. The ninth inning (or beyond when a team has a lead) is no place for crafty off-speed pitchers.

“You want a guy out there who can throw it by ’em,” Johnson said. “Period. Those are the guys you’re looking for. So when you find ’em, you give ’em room to grow.”

While guiding Baltimore for two seasons in the 1990s, Johnson believed Armando Benitez had “it.” Benitez’s high-90s fastball was perfectly suited for late-game work.

“And you know what?” Johnson asked. “He had some bumps in the road.”

Under Johnson, Benitez had the luxury of easing in as a setup man. Protecting leads in the eighth inning is an important job, but not the same as closing. Johnson took the right approach with Benitez, who recorded at least 40 saves in three seasons. The two-time all-star finished with 289 saves in a 15-year career.

“Slowly, through time, he handled the prime-time job,” Johnson said. “When he had some problems, he bounced back and was dominant. So when the naysayers look at Henry, what, I’m supposed to give up on him now? At [25]?

“No way. Not gonna happen. Henry can do the same thing. I’ve told everybody: When we have a change there [at closer], I’ll volunteer it. Otherwise, I don’t wanna keep getting asked about it every day.”

Johnson had better get used to it. The questions likely will continue until there’s an eye-opening spike in Rodriguez’s save percentage. His command must improve. Johnson’s continued support is contingent on it.

“Henry knows what he has to do,” Johnson said. “But I don’t want him to beat himself up. I don’t want him to get down.

“He doesn’t have to be perfect every time; go out and do what we know he can. We’re behind him.”

Rodriguez apparently will be given time to prove himself. He just needs to pick up the pace.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

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