By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; D03
VIERA, FLA. -- On a practice field late this February, Scott Olsen played toss with his new catcher, a rote exercise he had performed thousands of times with who-knows-how-many teammates. This was different, though -- the word "awesome" kept entering Olsen's mind. Olsen had watched Iván Rodríguez play in all-star games most of his life, and now they were on the same team, just having a catch before practice.
"It's kind of surreal," Olsen said. "That's a Hall of Famer, live and in person."
The Washington Nationals signed Rodríguez this offseason so he could inject legitimacy into their organization and serve as an insurance policy for the rehabbing Jesús Flores. They have already realized a side effect. As spring training has crawled along, Rodríguez, entering his 20th season, has used his experience and expertise to help the Nationals' gaggle of youthful pitchers evolve.
First, though, the awe had to wear off. Garrett Mock grew up in Houston, and he was 8 years old when Rodríguez made his major league debut for the Texas Rangers in 1991. "I was a huge fan," Mock said. When he and Rodríguez first worked together, Mock recognized the moment, but quickly pushed it out of his mind.
"I mean, he didn't come here to have fans," Mock said. "He came here to win."
When a pitching staff breaks in a new catcher, there is typically an extended period of feeling him out. That exists with Rodríguez, too, but his gravitas helps. His longevity gave him instant credibility with the Nationals pitchers. Even when he calls a pitch they did not expect, they can throw it with conviction.
"When you have a lot of trust in your catcher, you make better pitches," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "That's what he brings. He's got that presence."
The first time John Lannan pitched to Rodríguez in a game, he learned how Rodríguez operates. Rodríguez called for a sinker inside to St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Ryan Ludwick, a right-handed hitter. Lannan had never thrown a sinker in to a right-hander. He threw the pitch, anyway, and Ludwick hit a deep fly out.
"It's just a matter of making a couple adjustments, try to throw it more inside," Rodríguez said. "Maybe it can be a good pitch for him."
"It's a good pitch that I should start working on," Lannan said. "He's been around for so long, he knows what works. He knows what the hitters are thinking. Whatever he has to say, I'm going to listen with open ears."
In Lannan's next start, Rodríguez called a backdoor curveball to a left-handed batter, another pitch he'd never thrown. The pitch stayed up in the strike zone and resulted in a near home run, but afterward Rodríguez explained why he had called the pitch. Lannan understood.
"That's why he's great," Lannan said. "He pushes you to throw stuff you wouldn't before."
In Mock's first start, he tried to shake off Rodríguez and throw a certain pitch. Rodríguez insisted he throw the same pitch consecutively. Mock did, and he retired the batter.
"He's been huge for me so far," Mock said. "He'll call a pitch sometimes I might not understand. He'll call a pitch that I've never really thought about before. Then after that, he'll explain to me why. That's the learning process. He explains everything. That's awesome."
Rodríguez wants Nationals pitchers to develop more pitches, even if they're not be comfortable with them. Once the season begins, Rodríguez will revert to emphasizing a pitcher's strengths, not experimentation. McCatty allowed that Rodríguez is still learning all the pitchers. But he's also challenging them.
"The reason that I'm doing that is because I want them to throw all the pitches," Rodríguez said. "I want them to change something from their routine. When you have another pitch in your [repertoire] that's better.
"That's what spring training is all about -- working on something, learning pitches. I'm sure when the season starts, we're going to go with what pitches they're comfortable with. That's why I'm making them throw all the pitches, so I can make them feel comfortable."
They have realized Rodríguez is here to work. After his first catch with Rodríguez -- when he thought, "That's Pudge!" -- Olsen realized he couldn't fixate on Rodríguez as a baseball legend, a figure from his childhood. He was just his catcher.
"I'm hopefully over that now," Olsen said. "I can't be thinking about that when I'm trying to get guys out, so I'm glad that I got all of that out the first day."