The Nationals assumed there would be days like Sunday for Henry Rodriguez, but that does not make them any less ugly when they happen.
In the eighth inning, Rodriguez walked three batters, nearly beheaded two Marlins and reduced poor Ivan Rodriguez to a hockey goalie. He threw several pitches in the dirt and two wild pitches, one that allowed a run to score. He even threw one pitch to himself: a fastball soared over Gaby Sanchez’s head, bounced off the backstop and rolled back to the mound.
But the Nationals believe those difficult moments are part of the process for Rodriguez, 24. He has shown progress with his control, but Sunday served as a blip they believe he will overcome.
“I’m not discouraged by it,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “It’s part of the package you get with a guy who can throw 100 miles per hour.”
Rodriguez came advertised as a flame-throwing right-hander who struggled finding the strike zone, Hollywood’s Rick Vaughn come to life. Before Sunday, though, Rodriguez had mostly harnessed his high-90s heater, walking three batters in four innings. And Sunday, he also struck out two batters, including one with a 96-mph fastball on the black, and did not allow a hit.
“Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill,” McCatty said.
Still, the Nationals had hoped to be able to utilize Rodriguez’s rocket of an arm in important situations and reduce the stress on Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett, who have been lights-out but heavily leaned on. After Sunday, “we got to get [Rodriguez] sharper before we can get him into bigger spots,” Manager Riggleman said.
Sunday, Rodriguez experienced issues with the Sun Life Stadium mound, which McCatty called “a little chewed up.” He also allowed nervous energy to get the best of him, an issue he has dealt with in the past.
“He gets a little charged up,” McCatty said.
Rodriguez has a relatively established track record of wildness. Since 2006, in 360 2/3 professional innings between the minors and majors (mostly minors), Rodriguez had walked 255 batters before this season. The Nationals still saw enough potential in his arm to trade Josh Willingham* for him and minor league outfielder Corey Brown.
*If you’re curious, Willingham is batting .226/.308/.415 with five homers in 120 plate appearances for Oakland.
The Nationals believe Rodriguez will correct those control problems and is in the process of doing so. It is feasible, especially with a pitcher who throws so hard, that he could cut down on walks at this stage in his career. At his best moments, like when he struck out Mike Stanton looking, you can see why they want to give him every chance.
“Steve McCatty and I were talking about this,” Riggleman said. “He’d throw a pitch that Pudge can’t get to, and then he’d throw a great breaking ball. I don’t want to see somebody get hit in the head, and a couple of those balls were up high. I’m a little concerned when I see that. … It was a little hard to figure it out.”