MILWAUKEE — Francisco Rodriguez is fiddling with his smart phone, sitting in the leather chair next to his locker, when he’s asked about how he has settled into his role as the Milwaukee Brewers setup man. It’s been almost a year to the day that Rodriguez was in a Milwaukee uniform for the first time.
He stops abruptly and looks up from his phone. He clearly doesn’t like how the question has been phrased.
“I’m a closer,” Rodriguez clarifies. “My mentality is as a closer. I’ve been a closer my whole career. I’ve been a setup man for one year. Don’t tell me that I’m a setup. I’m waiting for my opportunity. When that time comes, I’ll be ready for it.”
There’s a bite to his words, as he gives his explanation. After all, he holds the record for most saves in a single season in baseball history (62), has led the league in saves three times, and been to four All-Star games. He has more than earned the “closer” label in his 11-year career.
But ever since that magical 2008 season, when no one was more effective in the ninth inning than Rodriguez, he hasn’t quite regained his form for a full season. His partial season with the Brewers in 2011 was his most dominant since that record-setting year, as he tallied a 1.86 ERA and 1.138 WHIP — his lowest marks in those categories since 2006.
Through one half of his first full season in Milwaukee though, Rodriguez has fought a losing battle to channel his old self. He’s struggled mightily with his command at times this season and has already taken as many losses as he did in 2010 and 2011 combined. Every time he’s taken three steps forward, he said, he feels as though he’s taken six steps back.
Still, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, who was a coach on the Angels’ staff when Rodriguez was Anaheim’s dominant closer, has repeatedly put his faith in Rodriguez. He has seen the potential firsthand — 62 times in one season.
“He’s been frustrated no doubt,” Rodriguez said. “He doesn’t like the way he’s thrown this year. … Frankie is a perfectionist. He’s an unbelievable gamer. When he’s not out there performing at the level he should be, he’s not happy with what he’s doing.”
That ambition and yearning for perfection has kept Rodriguez’s eyes on the prize. He is a setup man now, yes, but it’s clear that’s not how he views himself. He still yearns to be the man in the ninth inning. It’s a goal he’s determined to fulfill, whether it be this year, next year, or a year after that. And as he talks about it, his confidence in his own game is tangible.
“Of course (I miss it),” Rodriguez said. “Coming into this year, I knew my role was going to be setup, so I prepared myself for that mentally and physically for the challenge. But definitely, when I get the opportunity once again, everything’s going to change: my mentality, the way that I work, everything.”
With John Axford entrenched as the Brewers closer, it’s not likely that that opportunity will be in Milwaukee. At least, it appeared that way before the season, when Axford had carved his own spot in the record books, for a different kind of saves streak.
When Rodriguez was added to that equation last year though, that kind of pedigree in the eighth inning was a bit intimidating for Axford, a player without much experience closing games. And while Rodriguez has made it clear this year and last that he wants to close, like Rodriguez, Axford treasures that inter-clubhouse competition.
“It was intimidating to a certain degree,” Axford said of Rodriguez’s arrival. “It makes you appreciate your job a little bit more when something like that happens. We both were in it for winning games. That’s why he was brought over.
“I know it’s been difficult for him to try and change his mentality at times, but he just takes that fighter attitude that he has out there every single time. I think it turned out well for him.”
Rodriguez knows he can help a team in the ninth inning. But right now, the faith from his coaching staff and Roenicke’s understanding of his potential has him content with his role. However, there’s a clear expiration date attached.
He admits he doesn’t feel like a young player anymore; although, his consistent reluctance to ask for a day off speaks to his longevity. And while the opportunity may exist for him to close, his situation in Milwaukee begs the question of whether that time will run out sooner rather than later.
But, as he always has, Rodriguez feels like he’s on the doorstep of regaining the prominence that once made him the game’s most dominant closer. Somebody just has to let him in.
“Hopefully, when I get it, I’ll just get it done,” Rodriguez said. “If you want to be able to have that job and keep that job, you have to be consistent. When it comes, you just have to hold it tight and not let go.”