VIERA, Fla. — Wednesday afternoon, Henry Rodriguez claimed another bewildered, wobbly-kneed victim. Vinny Rottino, a New York Mets farmhand, walked into the batter’s box against the Washington Nationals reliever like all the others, a bat in his hand, low expectations in his head and, maybe, fear in his heart.
Rodriguez threw Rottino two fastballs, a pair of aspirin tablets on the outside part of the plate. On his third pitch, Rottino’s head snapped back and his knees buckled. He ducked out of the way of a pitch that wasn’t there. The curveball curled, as if sucked by a vortex, back into the strike zone.
Rodriguez explained Thursday morning: “He was surprised.”
Rodriguez meant surprised by the devilish sequence of pitches. He had set up Rottino for the curve with the two fastballs. But Rodriguez could have been describing the general reaction to his work out of the Nationals bullpen all spring training.
Unknown a year ago and unreliable during the first half of last season, Rodriguez has been unhittable this spring. The Nationals will need a closer with Drew Storen out with elbow inflammation until mid-April, and they entrust not only veteran free agent Brad Lidge, but also Rodriguez with the ninth inning.
In the second season since the Nationals traded Josh Willingham to the Oakland Athletics for him, Rodriguez has harnessed his supercharged arsenal of pitches and found new comfort with the team. In nine innings this spring, all scoreless, he’s walked two hitters, struck out seven and allowed three hits.
“He’s done everything that you would hope that he would do,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “With his ability, if he does that, obviously his stuff is pretty frickin’ bueno.”
Calling Rodriguez from the bullpen with the game on the line last year would have seemed like madness. He led the league with 14 wild pitches and walked more than six batters per nine innings. One night, he allowed the winning run on a wild pitch that hit the netting above the backstop. Hitters rarely barreled his pitches — the league slugged .252 against him — but they did not have to.
“I used to catch him, and he’d get in trouble walking people and stuff like that,” said catcher Carlos Maldonado, a winter ball teammate of Rodriguez’s for two years in Venezuela. “Now he’s locating his fastball. That’s the most important thing for him.”
On Wednesday, Maldonado said, Rodriguez drilled his mitt with every pitch. His fastballs zipped over the plate’s edge, some of them 99 mph, one of them touching 100. He threw one ball the entire inning.
Nothing tangible unlocked this version of Rodriguez, no significant mechanical change or new exercise routine. McCatty altered the location of his hands slightly from the set, lowering them to his belt buckle, but that is it.
“He’s much more relaxed,” McCatty said. “He has more confidence in himself. It’s a little part of a maturity thing, growing up a little more. I haven’t said much to him. I just let him go. He’s just going about his business the right way.”
Lidge, then pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies, watched Rodriguez pitch three times last season. In the first outing, Rodriguez had no command. By the third appearance, “he completely dominated,” Lidge said. “It was like, ‘Wow, this guy, watch out.’ ”
In his last 22 games of 2011, Rodriguez allowed three earned runs, striking out 26 and walking 11. “Would I ever have thought he’s doing what he’s doing right now?” McCatty said. “Yeah. You could see it.”
In the clubhouse Wednesday, a few teammates laughed as they watched on television, not to mock the Mets but in awe of Rodriguez’s performance. Rodriguez’s fastball averaged 98 mph last year, the quickest in the major leagues, according to data compiled by FanGraphs.com. Former manager Jim Riggleman compared his change-up to Stephen Strasburg’s. His curveball drops like an anvil dipped in lead.
The combination borders on absurd on its own. What makes it unfair is this: When Rodriguez releases the ball, all three pitches look the same from the plate.
“He’s got the same motion for every pitch,” Maldonado said. “He doesn’t need an adjustment for the fastball and curveball.”
Batters have to discern whether the pitch headed at their face is a curveball about to break out over the plate or a 100-mph fastball that could end their career. And they know the man throwing it unfurled 14 wild pitches last year.
“You’ve got a guy in Henry that has a reputation,” McCatty said. “Guys know that he can fire one up and in or wherever. When it’s coming in 100 miles an hour, you’re going to be a little leery. Fear is always a good thing for a pitcher to have in a hitter. If a hitter doesn’t know where it’s going, or he’s not sure, I think that’s a real plus.”
Rodriguez’s power reminds Lidge of a young Ocatvio Dotel, Lidge’s teammate with the Houston Astros years ago. Lidge struggled to name a pitcher who can match Rodriguez’s full repertoire when he controls it.
“It’s hard to compare him,” Lidge said. “There’s not a ton of guys who jump in mind right away. I think he has a chance to be a very dominant set-up guy or closer really soon. It’s going to be soon for him.”