- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Washington Nationals reliever Felix Rodriguez is sure he can help offset the loss of setup man Luis Ayala to a season-ending elbow injury.

Rodriguez certainly is no stranger to the role.

“All my career I’ve been a setup man. I’ll take the ball anytime,” he said. “What I like is to win. If the team wins, it’s OK. In my career, I’ve been to the playoffs [three times]. I know what it takes to win.”

The lanky right-hander from the Dominican Republic has allowed no runs on five hits in 62/3 innings this spring.

In his last outing Thursday against the Baltimore Orioles, Rodriguez pitched two innings, which marked his longest outing of the spring. But he will be asked to pitch just one inning most of the season.

The way the bullpen is shaping up, middle reliever Gary Majewski probably will enter games the Nationals are leading in the seventh inning. Rodriguez will follow in the eighth and closer Chad Cordero in the ninth.

“He’s thrown a lot of innings in the past,” Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said. “He’s not a high-maintenance guy. You give him something to throw, he’s going to throw it. If he’s going to take Luis’ spot, he’s got to be durable and be able to throw a lot of innings. Him, Majewski and Cordero — that’s what it’s going to come down to. He’s going to be filling some big shoes because Luis has done a great job for us the last couple of years.”

Ayala was 8-7 with a 2.66 ERA as the Nationals’ setup man last season, stranding 70 percent of inherited baserunners and tying for the league lead for wins by a reliever.

Rodriguez, 33, has been viewed as one of baseball’s top setup men the past few years. In 2001, he even received a few MVP votes after going 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA in 80 games for the San Francisco Giants. Last season, he was 0-0 record with a 5.01 ERA with the New York Yankees, but he had a left knee injury.

“I missed 2 months, but my knee is fine,” Rodriguez said. “The only bad year I can say is last year because I didn’t pitch that much. Bad year, good year, I take it because for me it’s baseball.”

The Nationals signed Rodriguez to a one-year, $600,000 guaranteed deal Feb.2, and they think if he stays healthy, he can return to his peak form with the Giants, when he was 34-19 from 1999 to 2004.

During his 10-year career, Rodriguez has blown only 23 saves in 532 regular-season games.

“He’s got a good fastball, hard slider and a [split-finger fastball],” Schneider said. “He’s going to come right after you and throw hard. I caught him once, and it wasn’t real hard to catch. He comes at you with his stuff, and he’s real direct about it.”

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