There had to be a first time for Henry Rodriguez to protect a lead late in the game, and it came last night. It will not be the last.
Manager Jim Riggleman said today he’ll use Rodriguez and Tyler Clippard as his primary set-up relievers in some order during the seventh and eighth inning, with left-hander Sean Burnett mixed in to get crucial outs against left-handed batters. Not even two weeks ago, Rodriguez’s control problems kept him resigned to the bullpen during crucial situations. But his performance lately has impressed Riggleman enough to convince him Rodriguez should pitch when it’s late and close.
“To cut to the chase, I’ve got a guy throwing 100 miles an hour down there,” Riggleman said. “If I can pitch him in the eighth inning, he’s going to pitch. They’re going to have to beat him instead of my left-hander. [Right-handed batters], they’re going to thank me for not bringing Rodriguez in.”
Last night, Riggleman found as low-pressure of a high-pressure situation as he could have to insert Rodriguez in the eighth inning of a one-run game. He used Burnett to retire Price Fielder, and the bases were empty with one out. Rodriguez had never pitched in a higher leverage situation, but he needed only two outs.
After a single, a walk and a two-run flare that hit the chalk, Rodriguez had lost the lead. But Rodriguez, the reliever the Nationals acquired in the trade that sent Josh Willingham to Oakland, will still be trusted in those situations.
Riggleman did not to lock himself into specific roles for his relievers, wanting to utilize the best match-up at the best time. Loosely, though, the bullpen plan when the Nationals have the lead will have Clippard and Rodriguez in the seventh and eighth and Drew Storen in the ninth. Riggleman will still rely on Burnett to face some lefties, or for a full inning.