Rays support Fernando Rodney, but for how long?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The curious case of Fernando Rodney includes another chapter, another blown save, another night when the questions continued. This has quickly become the identity of his current season, only 48 games old, and yet he remains the Tampa Bay Rays’ answer in the ninth inning.

But how long will he stay so?

The question is legitimate, and an outcome remains to be seen. Following the New York Yankees’ 4-3 victory in 11 innings Saturday at Tropicana Field, a game that included Rodney giving up two runs in the ninth inning to allow the Yankees to tie the score at 3, the former sure-fire answer as a closer includes more doubt.

For now, the Rays refuse to change course, to use a by-committee strategy. But is the status quo sustainable? Will Rodney’s results turn?

“This has been really awkward to watch,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s been within one pitch of being almost perfect this season. … I have not lost any patience with that. Honestly, I have not. We have to have this work a certain way for us to be successful all year. You just can’t look at a mini version of the season and draw all these different kinds of conclusions.”

Perhaps, but a trend has emerged. Rodney has five blown saves in 14 chances, after blowing just two in 50 opportunities last season. Coupled with a blown chance in a loss to the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, he has blown saves in two consecutive appearances for the first time since 2010, when he did so against the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 8 and Sept. 10.

The deed Saturday followed a similar script: Two quick outs, then a walk (to Lyle Overbay), then a balk, then a double by Brennan Boesch to left field, then a single by Brett Gardner to tie the score before Gardner was caught trying to steal second base with Robinson Cano batting to end the inning.

One out away. One more close call. One more letdown that makes those who follow this team with American League East title aspirations sit back and say, “When will Rodney find himself?”

“Rodney is going to be fine,” said Rays left-hander Matt Moore, who has a 2.21 ERA after pitching six innings Saturday. “He’s a great pitcher. He’s going to do what he needs to do. It’s the same thing — if he’s thinking about what I’m doing, it’s probably not going to be too good. If I’m thinking about what he’s doing, it’s probably not going to reflect too positively on me.”

Sill, these are uncommon times for Rodney. Last season, he set the single-season record for a reliever with a 0.60 ERA, beating Dennis Eckersley’s 0.61 from 1990. Then during the World Baseball Classic in March, he had seven saves in eight appearances, only allowing one hit in helping to lead the Dominican Republic to the title and an undefeated record in eight games.

The reasons for Rodney’s recent slide are complex. Sporadic command has played a part, as has strong opposing hitting. Examples: Jose Bautista sending a 98-mph fastball into the left-field stands at Rogers Centre on Wednesday and the pokes to the outfield by Boesch and Gardner on Saturday. All fine at-bats. 

The blame falls many ways. Some is on Rodney. Some credit goes to opposing hitting. Sometimes, it’s just not a closer’s night.

But blips in Rodney’s record this year have become a trend. On Saturday, he had a prime opportunity to earn his 10th save after Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar put the ball in play in the seventh, giving the Rays a 3-1 lead. Then reliever Joel Peralta entered in the eighth and retired the Yankees after facing four batters, before the theatrics of the ninth.

“Obviously, I don’t know where anyone’s mind is at,” said Rays outfielder Matt Joyce, who went 1 for 2 on Saturday. “But with the failures that we’ve had, I’m sure everybody is frustrated. Like I said, doubt tends to creep in. For us, we’ve got to find the confidence.”

Maddon continues to voice confidence and optimism, partly because he doesn’t have many options other than hope Rodney escapes his funk. When asked if he would consider changes in his ninth-inning strategy, the manager said, “Even if it were by committee, almost 95 percent of what we’ve done to this point, we would have done anyway. If we’re in a save situation tomorrow and everything flows, you’ll see Fernando back out there again.”

Rodney didn’t give himself a chance to react to those words, the latest twist in his curious case. Shortly after the manager spoke, a message reached lingering media in the clubhouse that the closer had left. The questions remained.

There are many. The outcome is unknown.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.