- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO What do you call a 20-year-old pitcher with one month of major-league experience who enters in the sixth inning of a World Series slugfest and proceeds to retire nine straight batters four on strikeouts to earn his fifth win of the postseason?

Ben Weber has a word for him: “Unfazeable.”

“Is that a word?” Weber wondered. “I don’t know. All I know is that for this kid to be doing this on the stage he’s doing it now is unheard of.”

The “kid” Weber refers to is his Anaheim Angels bullpen mate, Francisco Rodriguez. And baseball hasn’t witnessed a debut like his since, well, no one can quite remember a debut like his.

A virtual unknown right-hander entering the postseason, Rodriguez has become the story of October, perhaps taking a backseat only to Barry Bonds when it comes to media attention.

And for good reason, both statistically and emotionally.

Rodriguez’s postseason numbers are staggering. Eight appearances for a total of 13 innings. Four hits allowed, four walks issued. Nineteen strikeouts. A microscopic .095 opponent’s batting average. And a 5-0 record that already has tied Randy Johnson for the single-season playoff record.

“This is like a dream come true,” the Venezuelan native said following his latest triumph three perfect innings in the Angels’ 11-10, Game2 victory over the San Francisco Giants Sunday night. “One win in the postseason was great, and now I have five. If I’m dreaming, I don’t want to wake up.”

Now, let’s consider the context under which he’s amassed those numbers. Like the fact that, entering the playoffs, Rodriguez had a total of 5⅔ innings of big-league experience. Or that he was 3 years old in 1985 when Bonds made his major-league debut.

“He’s so confident, sometimes you forget he’s only 20 years old,” Angels catcher Bengie Molina said. “That’s when you realize how incredible it is.”

Rodriguez or “K-Rod” as he’s been dubbed, for his propensity to strike out everything in sight must have ice water running through his veins, because any warm-blooded animal thrown into a fire like this would have melted long ago.

Despite Rodriguez’s electric cut fastball and back-breaking slider, the Angels didn’t want to push him through their minor-league system too rapidly. He spent last season at Class A Rancho Cucamonga and struggled to a 5.38 ERA, and though he improved drastically at Class AA and AAA this year, Rodriguez didn’t get his first major-league call-up until Sept. 18.

Two weeks in an Angels uniform were all manager Mike Scioscia needed to see to include Rodriguez on his playoff roster. He pitched just 5⅔ innings in his abbreviated stint and struck out 13 batters, including eight in a row at one point (tying Nolan Ryan’s record).

Rodriguez experienced a slight hiccup in his first postseason appearance serving up a home run to New York’s Alfonso Soriano in Game1 of the division series. But since then he’s been virtually unhittable, mowing down the Yankees and Twins and earning Scioscia’s unqualified trust.

If the Angels have a one-run lead in the seventh or eighth inning, Rodriguez is going to be on the mound setting up closer Troy Percival.

“His composure has helped him a lot,” Molina said. “I don’t know where he gets it from.”

Perhaps from his difficult childhood in Venezuela. The oldest of 13 children raised by their grandparents in Caracas, Rodriguez always aspired to pitch in the major leagues, and while watching last year’s World Series at home with his family, he made a prediction.

“It’s funny, because I told them, ‘Hey, one of those days I’m gonna be there,’” Rodriguez said. “It’s kind of like a dream come true doing it the next year.”

With his explosive arsenal of pitches despite his slight 175-pound frame, Rodriguez is drawing comparisons to Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera, two of the most dominant pitchers of this generation.

Then again, the way things have gone so far, Martinez and Rivera might soon be the ones drawing comparisons to Rodriguez.

“I don’t want to offend Pedro Martinez, but look at [Rodriguezs] slider,” Weber said. “Guys were missing it by three feet. If it’s not Pedro-like, it may be better.

“His fastball is explosive, his slider absolute filth. And he probably has a changeup that he hasn’t even broken out yet.”

Who needs a changeup when you’re blowing away the heart of the Giants’ lineup (Rich Aurilia, Jeff Kent and Bonds) in order in the World Series, like he did in the sixth inning of Sunday’s game?

Rodriguez entered with the Angels trailing 9-8 and in desperate need of a stopper. He proceeded to strike out both Aurilia and Kent on three pitches apiece, then got Bonds to ground out on a first-pitch fastball.

Benito Santiago and Reggie Sanders also went down on three pitches in the seventh. By the time he departed after a perfect eighth (with the Angels leading 11-9 thanks to Tim Salmon’s two-run homer), Rodriguez had set the San Francisco lineup down in order, having thrown 22 of his 26 pitches for strikes, including his first 12 of the night.

Said Percival, who closed out the victory in the ninth: “He hasn’t been here long enough to know how hard that is.”

As the sellout crowd of 44,584 at Edison Field roared with glee, Rodriguez calmly walked off the mound, unfazed by the magnitude of the moment. In a game in which it seemed nobody could get anybody out, this 20-year-old rookie had just pitched three brilliant innings.

“He’s just not afraid of anybody,” Molina said. “He can pitch, and he knows it.”

And not once did he look like he was scared to be placed in such a predicament.

“No, just adrenaline. I never get nervous,” Rodriguez said. “You never say never, but in my case, I can say I just try to go out there, have fun and enjoy the game.”

Maybe Weber’s description of him was right, even if you won’t find the word in Webster’s.

The kid is, without question, unfazeable.

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