State of the Rays: Fernando Rodney battling expectations

History can be a fickle way to judge a career. Between moments of regression and progression, struggle and stability that occur from one season to the next, expectations in sports constantly evolve.  
 
Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney is living proof. It’s no surprise to him, but the veteran is experiencing how hazardous life on the mound can be, especially in the ninth inning, when tension is strongest.

He finds himself compared to a historic standard — one created after his 0.60 ERA, 48-save effort in 2012. The 36-year-old’s second Rays season has been less kind, however, highlighted by the fact that he has three blown saves (eight saves) in 17 appearances this young campaign, after failing to convert just two save chances last season.
 
Yes, something is different with Rodney. It’s predictable that some doubt has entered the conversation when discussing him in recent weeks, whereas “shooting the moon” after he dispatched batters to clinch a Tampa Bay victory appeared to be the inevitable result before.

There is some change, some unknown that has affected his control and, along the way, his production and how others have begun to perceive him.
 
Trying to explain Rodney’s issue is, in many ways, a puzzle. He still has the velocity — he routinely throws triple-digit offerings. He still has the reputation — “We have 100 percent confidence in him,” Rays outfielder Matt Joyce said. He still has the manager’s trust — “His stuff is great,” Joe Maddon said.
 
But it’s clear that this is not the same Rodney as the dangerous, flame-throwing player seen last summer. That’s partly because he’s compared to a season that neither he nor another reliever will likely match for some time, if ever.
 
Rodney understands his position’s risks, how fortunes change quickly and without favor, no matter a player’s status as an aged veteran or an inexperienced talent. He has lived with those realities throughout his career, since entering the majors in 2002 with the Detroit Tigers, and he’s prepared to continue to do so. Ultimately, it will be his task to change the tone of the study of him.
 
“This game is difficult,” Rodney said. “Sometimes, when you think you’ve got it in your hands, it’s gone.”
 
Rodney spoke those words after a three-run, four-walk blunder in 2/3 of an inning during a loss to the Boston Red Sox last Thursday at Tropicana Field.

The outcome was predictable after what occurred early in Boston’s ninth-inning rally from a two-run deficit: To begin, Rodney walked Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, before striking out Mike Napoli, walking Daniel Nava and striking out Stephen Drew.

Then with the bases loaded and two out, Will Middlebrooks smacked a ball to deep left field, giving the Red Sox their decisive margin of victory. Erratic command, as has been the case before, was Rodney’s largest problem.
 
The sequence was the latest example of the cracks Rodney has shown of late. To begin the Rays’ most recent homestand, against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 6, he surrendered two runs and two walks in Toronto’s 8-7 victory (that became Rodney’s second blown save this season). After the loss to the Red Sox, his ERA stood at 5.28, the highest since it was 5.40 after a defeat to the New York Yankees on April 23. The figure has hovered between 3.68 and 5.79 most of the year.

“He’s extremely talented,” Joyce said. “His velocity is there. Whatever the case may be with his control, he’ll get it figured out.”

If Rodney controls his command and keeps his pitch count low, there’s a strong chance Joyce will be proven right. Rodney has allowed a combined seven walks in his blown saves this season.

Two of the three blown save chances have included pitch counts of more than 30; he threw 37 against Toronto and 35 against Boston (he had 19 against Baltimore on April 3, the other blown save). Meanwhile, he has thrown no more than 25 pitches in any other outing, with most ending before pitch No. 20.
 
So while Rodney looks different this season, it’s because those around the Rays expect an elite standard from him — as they should. Reputations are a product of past performance, after all, and they follow coaches and athletes no matter the level or situation: A second-year NFL player after a strong rookie season, an NBA free agent who signs a rich contract with a new franchise after success elsewhere, a college football coach who returns after leading his program to a national title. Examples go on and on.

Rodney, like others over time, is being judged by what he has accomplished before. It’s his challenge to recover and raise his standard even more.
 
What’s Hot

Matt Joyce has been the Rays’ lead producer of late, earning nine RBI while batting .313 (10 for 32) in his past 10 games. A majority of his damage came in a victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday, when he went 3 for 5 with a home run and five RBI.
 
His emergence has been a consistent rise, and it has helped Tampa Bay during a stretch when it has won seven of its past 10 games. Joyce’s batting average has climbed steadily since standing at .212 after May 7.

Before going 0 for 2 and drawing three walks in a loss to the Blue Jays on Monday, Joyce had a three-game hitting streak, and he had hit safely in seven of his past 10 games. That stretch included three multi-hit games and 10 RBI. His current totals stand at .242, eight home runs and 19 RBI, making him one RBI shy of joining four Rays players with at least 20 (Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Kelly Johnson and James Loney).
 
What’s Not
 
Placement on the 15-day disabled list became the latest issue for left-hander David Price in a season of many for him. Both Price and manager Joe Maddon seem to think the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner will experience a “normal” DL stint, meaning he’ll likely miss no more than two or three starts. (Right-hander Jake Odorizzi was called up from Triple-A Durham to take Price’s place in the rotation and made his Rays debut Monday, giving up three runs and five hits in five innings during a loss to the Blue Jays.)
 
Still, what to make of Price’s situation? The numbers — a 1-4 record with a 5.24 ERA — speak for themselves. Price seemed more like himself in striking out eight batters during an eight-inning outing that included surrendering two earned runs and seven hits in a Tampa Bay win over the Blue Jays on May 9.

But the left triceps strain is another obstacle to overcome in a series of bizarre incidents involving the ace — from a verbal spat with umpire Tom Hallion to the revelation that he has fought blurred vision because of allergy issues. What’s next?
 
Quotes of the Week
 
“I thought (about) giving equal time to all the members of our clubhouse. It came to mind the other day, after the last game against San Diego. I thought, ‘Let’s do something to liven up Tuesday.’ ”  
 
— Manager Joe Maddon, on inviting a Latin band into the home clubhouse before the Rays began a three-game series with the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday at Tropicana Field. The band, Tampa-based Sol Caribe, entertained players with merengue music, a genre with roots in the Dominican Republic. This occurred after the team enjoyed an off day Monday.
 
“We’re just giving it some time to calm down. That’s really what we’re doing right now. I feel pretty good. I felt better than when I left last night. We’re just giving it a little bit of time to heal. … I’ll be back out there in a couple weeks.”
 
— Left-hander David Price, after being placed on the 15-day disabled list for the first time in his major league career last Thursday with a left triceps strain. He left a start against the Red Sox last Wednesday at Tropicana Field after feeling tightness in the triceps following 2 1/3 innings of work.
 
“I thought that I was dreaming.”

— Alayna Adams, 9, after being reunited with her father, Lt. Col. Will Adams, before a game Thursday between the Rays and Red Sox at Tropicana Field. Alayna threw a pitch toward home plate and Will, dressed in full catcher’s gear, caught the ball and unmasked himself as his daughter raced toward him from the mound. Will’s wife, Dana, also was present and had not expected him home from Afghanistan until the following Monday.
 
Numbers Game
 
43: Games Evan Longoria has reached base safely this season. The figure is a major-league high.

1917: Year former Boston Red Sox left-hander Babe Ruth started the season 8-0 at age 22. The Rays’ Matt Moore, 23, became the youngest lefty starter to begin a season 8-0 since Ruth, with a seven-inning, one-run, five-hit outing in a victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday at Camden Yards.
 
1: Number of sweeps the Rays have earned on the road this season after taking three consecutive games from the Orioles from May 17-19 at Camden Yards. Tampa Bay has earned three sweeps overall this season.

Tweet of the Week

The message is nothing new. Manager Joe Maddon has repeated the theme numerous times this season: There’s more in Matt Moore. And it’s hard to argue.
 
The left-hander is 23 years old, so the pitcher is only beginning to discover his potential. Last year was his full first major league campaign, so much of what he has accomplished this season has been done with natural ability and growing confidence. 
 
After a recent game, catcher Jose Molina said it himself: Moore is still learning how to manage situations, work out of difficult scenarios and mature as a pitcher. With time, seasoning will come, and it’s intriguing to consider how good Moore could be if he reaches his potential.
 
Maddon has said Moore is on an arc where the pitcher could be an accomplished talent in the next few years. If Moore’s 8-0 start this season is a preview, the future looks bright.

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