MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Henry Rodriguez got the first save of his career last week in Philadelphia and he was so good Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park in the eighth inning, striking out the side of Atlanta Braves, his teammates were still guffawing over the performance on Monday.
Monday night, he earned himself a second save when Michael Morse’s ninth-inning blast turned a one-run loss into a two-run lead. Rodriguez was already warming so Nationals manager Davey Johnson opted to stick with him.
Given the way Rodriguez pitched earlier this season — when a wild pitch was a regularity and a walk was about as common as an appearance — it was just the latest in a string of incredibly impressive performances for the flamethrowing right-hander.
Rodriguez can throw 100-mph. He can throw harder than that, actually, but harnessing it has been an issue and the Nationals have worked with him through the season to find some control and consistency. In feeling comfortable and more like a part of the team he joined this spring after being traded for Josh Willingham this offseason, Rodriguez seems to have found it.
“Certainly he’s one of the most improved ballplayers since the start of the season,” Johnson said. “When players do well, you expand their roles and his role has been expanded… He’s kind of being groomed as a backup closer.
“This young man is just now establishing the fact that he’s something to be reckoned with.”
In an interview translated by clubhouse attendant Javier Castro, Rodriguez specifically cited his growing comfort level with his teammates having a direct correlation to the way he’s been pitching of late.
“One hundred percent,” he said.
It took him a while to feel like he was a part of the team but now that he does, he’s been able to relax on the mound and express his talent.
“I’m really confident with my teammates,” he said. “Everything is working for me. I pitch much more relaxed now. I know the situation better and I know my role better here.”
“He’s strong as an ox,” Johnson said. “I’ve used him three, four times in a row and he’s been outstanding. He can handle any kind of workload you throw at him.”
His teammates spent part of Monday’s pre-game watching his performance on Sunday on the clubhouse’s computers. Rodriguez threw seven pitches 100-mph or higher, but the most impressive part of the outing was his control, and the nasty 88-mph slider he dropped in to strike out Jack Wilson for the inning’s final out.
Rodriguez was the least surprised by his performance.
“I can do that,” he said. “Plus more.”