DETROIT — Fernando Rodney looked out at a scrum of reporters and noticed something just behind it. Into the frame danced outfielder Victor Robles. The Washington Nationals’ irrepressible ball of energy was 5 years old when Rodney debuted in the majors — he’s now the oldest active pitcher in baseball — but Robles had recently become familiar with his new teammate’s famous celebration.
Pedro Enrique Loyo Diaz
“Baseball for me is opportunity,” Rodney said as Robles grinned at the reliever, leaned backward, extended his left arm out while drawing his right arm back and pretended to shoot a bow and arrow.
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Rodney had drawn from an imaginary quiver minutes earlier too, when he sailed through the Detroit Tigers’ Nos. 8, 9 and 1 hitters with two strikeouts and a ground-out to seal the ninth inning of the Nationals’ 3-1 series-opening win . Washington was the ninth team Rodney recorded a save for, and it tied him with former closers Goose Gossage and Octavio Dotel for the all-time record of saves with different teams, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Pedro Loyo Diaz
In the clubhouse, just as he had on the mound, Rodney maintained a steely focus. Except for what might’ve been a crinkle in his eyes, the 42-year-old reliever never betrayed that he saw Robles
The Nationals need someone of this mind-set at the back-end of their bullpen. Manager Dave Martinez trusts closer Sean Doolittle and setup man/secondary closer Wander Suero, but he needs two more arms to supplement them when one or both is unavailable, as the pair was Friday. If they’re available, more trust in more relievers in high-leverage situations means more flexibility for Martinez and more leeway if a starter is struggling earlier in the game. Right-hander Tanner Rainey seems to have secured one of those spots — he struggled but escaped in the eighth inning against the heart of the Tigers order Friday — and Rodney could round out the unit
“What I really like is his fastball was good and his change-up was really good,” Martinez said of the 1-2-3 ninth inning. “Fernando, he’s done it. He’s pitched in big moments. He gets it. For me today, when Doo was not available, he was the guy in the ninth.”
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Essentially, Martinez needs someone to be the reliever the Nationals had hoped Trevor Rosenthal would become, a reliable veteran whose experience makes them unflappable in late games. The Nationals clung to Rosenthal until last Sunday, when they outright released him and ate the $7 million guaranteed after he walked three batters in what preempted an epic Nationals collapse. Martinez hesitated to compare Rodney, who only pitched once for the Nationals before Friday, a scoreless inning with one walk and one strikeout against the Miami Marlins, and Rosenthal
“Right now [Rodney] is helping us win games,” he said. “It’s his second outing, but so far he looks good. I told him, ‘Hey, there’s no pressure. You’re going to pitch late in games. Just be ready.’ “
For his part, Rodney seems to ready to give the Nationals what they need. The 17-year veteran notched his 326th career save against the Tigers and didn’t talk about his mental toughness as much as he displayed it. He seemed genuinely perplexed when reporters asked how he felt entering a high-leverage situation
“I just tried to do my job,” he said. “
“I think I did what I’m supposed to do tonight,” he said
“Some people think I’m too old for the league, but this is the experience I have,” he said. “It’s not an easy job, but I feel comfortable when the game situation’s like that. I feel more comfortable. I throw everything I have — fastball, change-up — whatever I have to do to keep the game that way.”
Still, Rodney might seem like an unlikely candidate to replace Rosenthal, whose raw stuff included a four-seamer which touched 100 mph. Rodney relies on a low-to-mid-90s fastball, which he throws about half the time, and a low-80s change-up, which he throws on about 30 percent of his pitches
This arsenal worked last season, when he had a 3.36 ERA and 25 saves with the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics, but this year, not so much. In 17 appearances with Oakland, he had a 9.42 ERA across 14 1/3 innings. The Athletics designated him for assignment May 25, and the Nationals signed him days later
He was the latest in a parade of veteran relievers the Nationals inked to minor-league deals in hopes of fixing baseball’s worst bullpen. Though Rodney struggled with command at Class AAA Fresno, and though he got promoted almost at the same time as left-hander Jonny Venters, Rodney seems at the moment like the best hope to establish an important role. The underlying truth to all of this, though, is that anyone who watched Rosenthal secure a crucial out in a high-leverage eighth inning one night before the meltdown can attest, one outing does not make a pitcher
The Nationals, though, are still searching for that coveted bullpen leverage arm and hope Rodney can continue his recent success. For Rodney, this test is no more stressful than any other. He’s been around too long to get worried by this
“Davey know I got my confidence,” he said. “I just always want to be in the game to help the team.”
Read more on the Nationals :
Ex-Nationals reliever Trevor Rosenthal reportedly agrees to minor league deal with Tigers
Could Stephen Strasburg opt out of his contract at season’s end? It’s complicated.
Fernando Rodney and Jonny Venters ‘get it.’ The Nationals will find out if they can still get it done.
Victor Robles gets hit by pitches often. His manager wants to see him protect himself.
Sam Fortier Sam Fortier is a sports reporter for The Washington Post. Follow
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