- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2011

Catch. Set. Throw. Out.

It’s a sequence that Washington Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez has run thousands upon thousands of times. In the eighth inning of the Nationals’ 4-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Saturday afternoon, he did it to the best base stealer in the National League. Michael Bourn just trotted off the field shaking his head.

On what could very well be his final home start in a Nationals uniform, Rodriguez reminded everyone why it’s been so effortless and enjoyable to watch him play baseball for the last 20-plus years.

“He was bouncing around today like a 19-year-old, in total command of the game,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He’s one of the best there ever was.”

There was a feeling from the get-go that his teammates sensed the sentimentality of it all. From the minute Rodriguez’s name was written on the lineup card, his first start since July 4, there was an added buzz to each of his actions …

The first base stealer he caught of the day, Braves catcher Brian McCann, easily thrown out to end the second inning. His single in the seventh to bring him within 157 hits of 3,000 in his career. The intentional walk he took to set up starter Chien-Ming Wang’s first career hit — an RBI tally, to boot.

In what could be his penultimate start for the organization — he is a free agent after this season but will start the finale in Florida on Wednesday — he turned in a vintage performance.

“Gets a base hit, throws guys out, that’s Pudge.” said second baseman Danny Espinosa, who was 4 years old when Rodriguez made his major league debut. “That’s what he’s always been able to do.”

Each time Rodriguez asserted himself in the game like only he can, the Nationals’ dugout erupted.

“Really,” Jayson Werth asked, “how many times do you get to play with an icon of the game? As long as we live, I don’t know if we’ll ever see another player like that, from that position.”

“I don’t ever lose that fan factor of, ‘That’s Pudge,’” said closer Drew Storen. “I still don’t take for granted having a guy like that in the clubhouse and being around him every day.”

Even after working through a strained oblique and sitting idle for almost an entire month after he was healthy enough to return to the active roster, Rodriguez didn’t show any signs of a layoff. He expertly guided Wang through six impeccable innings, strengthening the right-hander’s bid to return to the Nationals next season, and holding the Braves scoreless until a solo home run in the fifth by Freddie Freeman.

By then, the Nationals had already jumped on Braves starter Brandon Beachy for four runs. Chris Marrero had an RBI single in the second, then the Nationals added three more in the fourth via Espinosa’s two-run single and Wang’s milestone hit.

And yet it all could have been erased in the eighth inning when Tyler Clippard issued a walk and surrendered a single to Bourn put runners on the corners with one out. The game easily could have been blown open. But Bourn decided to test the 39-year-old Rodriguez’s arm.

“For me, that was a surprise, to be honest with you,” Rodriguez said. “Three runs behind and the big guys behind him? I was ready to throw in any situation but, at the same time, I didn’t think he was going to go.”

It didn’t matter.

“The good thing is, I threw a perfect throw to second base,” Rodriguez said.

Just like he has done countless of times before. In his two seasons with the Nationals, Rodriguez has caught 42 percent of would-be base stealers, a mark at least 13 percent higher than the league’s average in that same period.

Clippard pointed at second base and pumped his fist in triumph when the out call was made. Behind home plate, Rodriguez gave a similar motion but immediately went back to business in helping Clippard coax a fly out to escape the inning. “Just doing the best I can,” Rodriguez said.

His future in Washington is unknown. But for one day, as the Nationals kept the Braves from getting closer to clinching the NL Wild Card, he was back on center stage at Nationals Park and it was as if he’d never been away.

“I don’t know what [Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo] is thinking and I don’t know what the organization is thinking but the thing that I can tell you is that I am not retiring,” Rodriguez said. “I still have a lot of baseball left, many years left.”

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