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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014

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In Sports

Francisco Rodriguez has re-emerged as baseball's best closer at the age of 32 and in his third go-round in Milwaukee. (PHOTO: David Bernacchi )

Rodriguez turns back the clock with Brewers


There are two elements to Francisco Rodriguez's game that he's possessed from a very young age: the ability to forget the day before, and to make batters swing and miss.

It goes back to the beginning of his career, his formative teenage years played in Montana, Idaho and California as free agent amateur signed out of Venezuela by the Anaheim Angels. He was a starter back then, beginning the game 42 times in his first 46 appearances in professional baseball. He was hit around, as you might imagine a kid would be.

But, he struck out 301 in 234 innings.

Moved to the bullpen in 2002, he struck out 120 batters in 83 1/3 innings between Class AA and AAA.

The world was introduced to him on Sept. 18 of that year, three days after he was called up to the Angels major league roster in the heat of a playoff push. He struck out 13 in 5 2/3 innings for an incredible 20.9 strikeouts per nine innings rate.

He shined in the postseason, going 5-1 in relief while striking out 28 in 18 2/3 innings as the Angels won the World Series.

"K-Rod" was born.

From 2005-2008 he led the American League in saves three times (including a major league record 62 in 2008), striking out 356 in 276 innings (11.6 K/9).

"I take a lot of pride in what I do," Rodriguez said of an aggressive mindset that leads to swings and misses. "When I cross the line I'm going to compete and once I go out there I'm a different person. I'm just going to try to attack the hitters and try to do it's as quick as possible."

Ron Roenicke had watched Rodriguez up close as a member of the Angels' coaching staff during the reliever's tenure in Anaheim. It was the other part of his mentality that stuck out.

"I've known him a long time and I know how he is when things are good or when they're bad," Roenicke said. "He's the same guy. He understands the role. He understands that you have to get over it and the next day you come in it's a new day. He's been really good at that."

But, after 483 innings of work in 429 games (including playoffs) and 628 strikeouts, the Angels had no desire to compete for Rodriguez's services on the free agent market, and he left for the New York Mets for a three-year, $37 million contract.

It was then that his career dipped and dived as often as his fastball and slider. The years in New York weren't all bad, but his strikeout rate began to tumble and his earned run average climbed. He was in the midst of another mediocre season when the Brewers surprisingly traded for him in 2011 to set up closer John Axford. The move revitalized Rodriguez, who struck out 10.2 batters per nine innings and posted a 1.86 ERA in 31 games.

In the 2011 postseason he struck out eight in five innings as the Brewers advanced to the National League Championship Series.

His next two years were spent in Milwaukee and then in Baltimore, largely in a setup role. He posted a 3.72 ERA in 118 2/3 innings with a 9.6 K/9 rate. After last season, teams weren't exactly beating down the door of a 32-year-old with 804 mostly high-stress innings on his arm.

The Brewers came calling again a week before pitchers and catchers were to report to spring training with the expectation that he set up Jim Henderson, and he signed a one-year deal for $3.25 million. The winter didn't go great – he had problems leaving Venezuela, and when he did arrive in Arizona he stepped barefoot on a cactus, which delayed his return to the mound.

Then, on Opening Day, he was thrown a curveball when he was called out by manager Ron Roenicke to save an eventual 2-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves.

He's been in that role since, and began the year going 14-for-14 in save opportunities and not allowing a run in his first 17 appearances (17 innings).

K-Rod has been regenerated.

"Well, what can I tell you?" he shrugged. "A lot of hard work paid off. I've been pretty fresh. I didn't throw much spring training. I didn't throw much last year, so I feel pretty good right now."

Rodriguez is striking out 12.7 batters per nine innings, his highest rate since 2004, when he was 22. His WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings) is at 0.647 – his lowest rate since 2003.

All the while he's doing it in the face of Father Time, who has diminished the once rocket fastball to the upper 80s.

"At times, you could see it with the hitters – they're late on the fastball and you try to cheat on the fastball and the offspeed is so good that they really don't know what to look for," Roenicke said.

How, exactly, is that working?

"Go after guys," said reliever Will Smith. "I mean, that's just what he does. He pounds the zone. He goes after guys, he doesn't care who they are or what their stats are. He thinks he can get you out no matter what. I think we all do in the bullpen but he proves that you can do it without a 95 mile an hour fastball. He does it with 89, 90."

For his teammates in the bullpen, Rodriguez has become a true anchor.

When asked what it feels like knowing "that guy" is back there, Jim Henderson exhaled deeply and dropped his shoulders.

It's relief. It's over.

Henderson said the only mission is to get Rodriguez as quickly and as efficiently as they can, because for the rest of the bullpen (even for him), K-Rod was always The Man.

"I don't think he ever – he never really lost his closer's role, you know what I mean?" Henderson said, noting the varied path Rodriguez has taken the last three years. "He never lost it."

"He's unreal. Awesome," Smith added. "He's got 12, 13, 14 years in the big leagues, so to have a guy like that in the bullpen to kind of follow around and ask questions ... it's unreal what he does."

It's unrealistic to expect a perfect season. Everyone in the Brewers clubhouse knows the game will catch up to even the greatest of stars, and Rodriguez will falter. He'll falter more than once. But, Roenicke still sees the one important thing in his closer that has kept him young, and effective through the first quarter of the season.

"Frankie's always been a very confident guy," Roenicke said. "And he's a very smart guy he understands how to get out hitters. And so I feel good. Again, it's not always going to go good down there with him or with anybody else, but I know what's going to happen the next day with him and that's important."


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