MILWAUKEE — Manager Ron Roenicke emerged from the top step of the Milwaukee Brewers’ dugout in eighth inning Monday night much earlier than he had hoped.
In 2011, a trip like this to the mound in the middle of the eighth inning never happened. Not once. Roenicke wouldn’t even have dreamed it being possible in those days, when Milwaukee’s bullpen was one of the best in the National League. In 31 appearances for the Brewers last season, Francisco Rodriguez was never pulled from a game mid-inning because of his performance.
But on Monday, like he has in four of Rodriguez’s last six appearances, Roenicke walked to the mound. Meanwhile, the frustrated masses surrounding him in the stands of Miller Park rained down boos on their once-unmatched setup man. It was a sight Rodriguez hasn’t been privy to for the majority of his 11 seasons in the majors — a career that includes the distinction of being baseball’s single-season saves leader.
The frustrations of an almost indescribable season seemed to mount as Rodriguez handed over the ball and slowly began plodding back to the dugout. All season, he had held his head as high as possible in the face of frustration, through meltdown after meltdown. But even when he showed decent improvement in his command — like he did Tuesday — nothing seemed to go right for the struggling reliever.
He looked over his shoulder at the mound, as closer John Axford took the ball with just one out off the board. This was never how he had expected this season to go. The 30-year-old had talked for much of the season about having plenty left in the tank, about wanting to someday be a closer again. But like this one inning, Rodriguez’s season has been filled with missed opportunities.
Rodriguez quietly walked into the clubhouse Tuesday and spoke to no one, staring directly into his iPad. But as he sat in his chair next to his locker, at first hesitant to answer questions about his performance, he echoed a sentiment that he had put forth earlier in the season — when his hopes of being the Brewers’ closer hadn’t yet slipped so swiftly out of his grasp during a brief July promotion to the spot.
This time, as he spoke of seizing opportunities, there was a certain undeniable longing in his voice.
“More than anything, when the opportunity comes to anybody you make sure not to let it go,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes we take it for granted, what we do, and we forget how easy we have it when you’ve got guys doing everything possible to be in the spot you’re in.
“You have to appreciate it and hold it tight.”
Rodriguez wasn’t speaking about himself in that statement, but the message seemed to resonate personally as he said it, his words trailing off after each sentence.
His recent struggles have come more unexpectedly than they had at first. Even after his brief stint as closer ended, Rodriguez expected to bounce back. He felt good — he had gotten the slump out of his system, he thought. But the results weren’t there.
“It doesn’t matter how I feel when the results show different things,” Rodriguez said. “The numbers and the reality of all of this can tell you pretty much everything.”
Throughout his career, enduring the inevitable struggles of any pitcher that has the specific style Rodriguez employs, he’s done his best to avoid showing that frustration to his teammates. And this season, as part of a bullpen that has struggled mightily, that hasn’t changed.
“From Day 1 to today, he’s handled everything like a professional,” fellow reliever Kameron Loe said. “We all have so much respect for him. He’s accomplished so much in his career. Obviously, his numbers don’t reflect what kind of pitcher he has. Even veteran guys sometimes go through learning processes. This is a game of adjustments.”
Rodriguez has had to adjust a lot in the past few years, perhaps more than he ever expected he would in what still should be his prime. He no longer commands the strike zone like he did in his days as the Angels’ closer. He may no longer be a closer at all. But for now, his focus has drifted away from the goals he had to start the season. He’s not looking that far in the future.
“Right now, I just want to get a zero on the board,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the only thing I’m looking for. Three outs. I just have to take care of things day by day, and we’ll see about other things later. Right now, I just want to put a zero on the board so bad. That’s all.”