Henry Rodriguez made progress tonight in his third appearance since arriving late to Nationals spring training, but progress, for him, still includes some pockmarks. He retired all three batters he faced, striking out three of them, and he fired one fastball 99 miles per hour. But still, he worked three-ball counts to all three batters. He threw one fastball behind Dan Uggla’s head, another at Freddie Freeman’s feet.
“Wildly effective,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “Or effectively wild.”
In an effort to work on his command, Rodriguez took a different approach. He held back with his fastball at first, throwing 94 or 95 rather than the high 90s while focusing and not rotating his front shoulder too soon during his delivery. Even then, he let one pitch sail behind Uggla’s head (the pitch actually struck his bat for a foul and a strike).
“It was a little mixed,” Manager Jim Riggleman said, “He was trying to take a little off and throw more consistent strikes. And it’s still a way-above-average fastball when he does that. So I think that’s a good deal for him.”
In the two weeks between now and opening day, the Nationals need to Rodriguez to solve his command. Though he’s only thrown 31 2/3 major league innings, the Nationals have no choice but to rely on Rodriguez in their bullpen. He was the main piece to the trade that sent Josh Willingham to the Oakland A’s, and he’s out of options.
So Rodriguez is part of the bullpen. The question is, in what role? The Nationals would like for him to pitch the late innings and even compete for the closer spot, and he certainly has the arm for it. But is he ready for it?
“I’ll use these two weeks to determine that,” Riggleman said. “I’m hoping to get to that point. He’s still working his way in there.”
Rodriguez has yet to completely make up for the time lost to this visa delay. “With more outings,” he said through infielder Alex Cintron, who translated, “I’m going to be good.”
Over the past five days, Rodriguez has pitched three times, every other day. “I’m sure he’s a little bit tired,” McCatty said. “I don’t think he’s at where he’s going to be within maybe a week or so. He’s got to feel comfortable facing hitters and trust his command a little more. There’s room to improve, and I think he will.”
Rodriguez still has work to do, but let’s not forget that the end results tonight could not have better. He took an interesting route to get there, but Rodriguez retired all three hitters faced and struck out two of them, Uggla and Wilkin Ramirez. He mixed in an effective changeup to Freeman, who flied one of them lazily to center for the final out.
“It was good,” McCatty said. “I don’t think Uggla would think it’s too good, but it was good.”
>>> Yunesky Maya made probably his roughest start of the spring, cruising for three inning before succumbing to big inning, the same bugaboo that doomed him during his brief stay in the majors last season. Maya allowed three runs on two homers – by Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward – in the third inning. For the game, he surrendered four earned runs in five innings on five hits and two walks, striking out two.
The Braves got to him the second time through the lineup, which may help explain why he’s been vulnerable to sudden, start-ruining innings. Opposing lineups may have a difficult time with his unique style the first time they see him, but the second time through they figure it out. That’s one theory.
Maya’s performance was not wholly discouraging; he still pitched with the same quick, confident tempo he used early in the spring, and his fastball hit 92 miles per hour consistently.
No matter what Maya did, really, it would not have affected his chances to make the opening day roster. Tom Gorzelanny is effectively locked into the spot – he has no options remaining, and the Nationals traded for him with the intent to inserting him into the rotation.
So Maya, barring an unforeseen circumstance, will start the year in Class AAA Syracuse. How well he pitches there will determine when he makes it back to the majors.
>>> Danny Espinosa did not play tonight. He traveld with the Nationals to Lake Buena Vista despite a sore right foot from when he fouled a ball off it Tuesday night, but trainers decided against letting him play.