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 ?
“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.