MILWAUKEE — There’s certainly something to be said about familiarity, and Ron Roenicke has just that with Francisco Rodriguez.
It was still a surprise to see Rodriguez trot out for the save opportunity on Opening Day instead of Jim Henderson, thought to be the Milwaukee Brewers’ closer at the time. After a spring training filled with political turmoil in his home country and a freak accident, Rodriguez never even saw himself closing this soon.
But this is exactly why general manager Doug Melvin went out and signed Rodriguez to a one-year, $3.25 million contract this winter. With Henderson fighting through a period of struggles, Roenicke had a reliever who now has 306 career saves to turn to in the interim.
"Any time you have guys that are capable of going back and closing games, you’re that much better off when things come up unexpected, like it has for us already," Roenicke said. "I didn’t expect Henderson to not be in that role. But I also know with what we went through with (former Brewers closer John Axford). The first year, a great year, and then the next year being a little off, (it’s beneficial) any time you have guys you can put back there."
Roenicke was the bench coach with the Angels for the first seven years of Rodriguez’s career and has had him in his bullpen as manager of the Brewers for parts of four different seasons. Knowing exactly what he is going to get from the 32-year-old has Roenicke comfortable throwing Rodriguez right into the fire despite a unique spring for the veteran.
"With Frankie, I know what’s going to happen, even if it doesn’t go well," Roenicke said. "I know what he’s going to be like the next day. He’s always good.
"I’ve known him a long time and I know how he is. When things are good and when they’re bad, he’s the same guy. He understands the role. He understands you have to get over (a bad outing) and you come in the next day, and it’s a new day. He has been really good at that."
Rodriguez reported late to spring training due to an inability to get a work visa with the deadly unrest in Venezuela and then stepped on a cactus while chasing his son around his backyard in the dark. Hundreds of spines went into his foot and delayed his preparation for the season.
He’ll admit his leg strength isn’t where it usually is at this time of the year — cactus spines are still being pulled out of his foot — but "K-Rod" has allowed just one hit and struck out eight in four innings thus far.
"I feel good now," Rodriguez said. "The last week or so I’ve been feeling pretty good. I still have to find a way to catch up and get my body a little stronger. My arm feels great; I’m healthy now."
According to Fangraphs.com, Rodriguez’s fastball velocity has averaged 89.6 miles per hour in his first three outings of the season, down from his average of 91.8 mph last year and significantly lower than his career-best average of 94.8 mph in 2006.
"His off-speed pitches are very good," Roenicke said. "His velocity will come back, it’ll get better. He’s at a disadvantage this year because of what happened before spring training and what happened in spring training. He’s trying to pitch, really, without the strength he’s used to pitching with."
Now in his second stint with the Brewers, Rodriguez has been a valuable insurance policy over his 137 appearances with the club. Milwaukee first acquired the right-hander in July of 2011 while making a run toward the postseason.
Rodriguez went 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA in 31 games to help the Brewers the National League Central crown and he allowed just one earned run in five postseason innings.
After an up and down season in 2012, Rodriguez went unsigned through the offseason before eventually latching on with the Brewers on a minor-league deal in late April. He had to earn his way back to the big-league club in a month-long audition, but was sensational when he came up.
Rodriguez posted a 1.09 ERA with 10 saves in 25 games before Melvin sold high and dealt him to Baltimore for third-base prospect Nicky Delmonico.
Even though he still considers himself a closer, the single-season saves record-holder signed with the Brewers in February not expecting to pitch in the ninth inning.
"Definitely, I was surprised," Rodriguez said. "Especially (because) coming out of camp, ‘Hondo’ was supposed to be the guy who was throwing the ninth inning. At the same time, it’s a challenge that I’m looking forward to."
According to Roenicke, the plan is still to have Henderson as the team’s closer when he gets back on track. Henderson’s velocity appears to be back and his last two outings have been encouraging, striking out a pair in both.
No matter when he’s called upon, Rodriguez says he’ll be ready. For now, that’s the ninth inning.