His teammates do not know how many more chances they might have to savor wearing the same uniform.
“How many times do you get to play with an icon of the game?” Jayson Werth said. “He’s a first ballot Hall of Famer. He’s Pudge. As long as we live, I don’t know if we’ll ever see another player like that.”
Rodriguez accepted his diminished role this season for the Nationals without complaint, but he rejected the notion that time had drained him of his ability. For him, starting in the Nationals’ 4-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves was about playing rather than ceremony. He did not think that Saturday’s game before 33,986 was possibly, if not likely, his final home start in a Nationals uniform.
“I don’t think about that,” Rodriguez said. “If it is, it is. If it’s not, it’s not. I don’t think about that. I think about the game today. I think about doing my best today.”
In his first start since July 4, Rodriguez showed why three teammates described him with the word “remarkable.” He still possesses the arm that has made him one of the greatest catchers ever, and he threw out two runners trying to steal second, including the game’s most crucial out. He called pitches for Chien-Ming Wang (4-3), who in his last start of 2011 allowed one run on four hits in six strong innings, a final accomplishment in his comeback from major shoulder surgery.
In the seventh inning, National League steals leader Michael Bourn tried to steal second with the tying run standing at the plate. Rodriguez caught a fastball from Tyler Clippard and fired a missile to second baseman Danny Espinosa. Bourn slid in too late. Rodriguez pumped his fist then stuck his pinky and index fingers in the air — two outs.
“For me, it doesn’t matter who’s running,” Rodriguez said. “I was surprised, to be honest with you. I’m ready to throw in any situation. But at the same time, I didn’t think he was going to run.”
The throw answered any questions about rust. A strained oblique in early July cost Rodriguez almost two months. Since his return, the Nationals have sat him in favor of Ramos, their clear starter, and Jesus Flores. The ascension of Ramos had made Rodriguez a backup on opening day. This month, he became a full-fledged observer.
The Nationals’ clubhouse has remained harmonious all year, and Rodriguez’s compliance played a crucial part. “If he’s not complaining about his role,” Storen said, “who is complaining?”
It did not make his 20th major league season easy. Rodriguez played in his 43rd game Saturday. He had played less than 100 games only once before, and that came because of injury in 2000, the year after he won the American League Most Valuable Player award.