The closer role can be so volatile in the majors. Young relievers with rocket arms can turn quickly into pitching sensations. Old standbys sent to setup roles can be thrust back into the ninth in an instant.
Francisco Rodriguez has lived through both scenarios.
The Milwaukee Brewers closer leads a pack of veterans who have returned to late-game prominence. LaTroy Hawkins, 41, is the oldest, having picked up his eighth save Monday for Colorado. The Mets have turned to 38-year-old Kyle Farnsworth to help close out games following a season-ending injury to Bobby Parnell and the struggles of Jose Valverde.
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But no closer has had as a surprising start as the 32-year-old Rodriguez, who has a Brewers franchise-record with 12 saves by the end of April entering Tuesday. The 13-year veteran has 316 saves, two behind 17th-place Rick Aguilera on the career list.
”One day I will sit down and check out the numbers and see how far and how I happy I (am) to have a nice career. But not right now,” Rodriguez said after picking up a save last week in a 5-2 win over the Cubs at Miller Park.
What makes Rodriguez’s start even more remarkable is his unusual spring training.
Visa problems in his native Venezuela delayed his arrival at camp by about two weeks. Then in mid-March, Rodriguez accidentally stepped on a cactus during an off day.
Jim Henderson, who finished last season 2013 with 28 saves for Milwaukee, was the presumed closer before Rodriguez surprisingly trotted out in the ninth on opening day and proceeded to get the save in a 2-0 win over Atlanta. Manager Ron Roenicke said he had turned to Rodriguez temporarily as Henderson worked to regain velocity.
Rodriguez hasn’t given up the job since.
His own velocity isn’t what it once was, though Rodriguez is following the well-worn path of other veterans who have become more complete pitchers as they age.
”With having the off-speed pitches, he’s got guys guessing on what he’s throwing,” Roenicke said. ”When I think he’s going to throw fastball, it’s something else. When I think, `OK, here comes the off speed,’ OK here’s the fastball.”
A look at five retro relievers and other bullpen highlights in the first month of the season.
K-ROD: Rodriguez’s early-season dominance is only part of the story for a Brewers bullpen that was one of the best in the game in April. Left-hander Will Smith, a key addition from Kansas City, said Rodriguez’s competitiveness has rubbed off on teammates in a relief corps consistently holding foes at bay in tight games.
”He prepares well, he prepares the other guys in the bullpen well,” Roenicke said about Rodriguez’s influence. ”You need a veteran presence to do that, especially with the way we’re using our bullpen.”
HAWKINS: The Colorado Rockies turned to a familiar name in the offseason to settle a bullpen that had an NL-worst 4.23 ERA in 2013. Hawkins returned to Coors Field after spending the 2007 season in Denver. His eighth save came in an 8-5 win Monday over Arizona.
FARNSWORTH: Hawkins held the closer’s role last year in New York. This season, Farnsworth is the Mets’ third closer in less than a month. He’s had a so-so start with two saves and one loss since being anointed closer April 20. And even then he may not have a lock on the job given Daisuke Matsuzaka picked up a save April 24 after Farnsworth had pitched in three of the previous four games.
ANGELS: Setup man-poster child Joe Smith doesn’t have the closer pedigree of Rodriguez, but he might be hoping he can still follow K-Rod’s success story after being placed in the stopper role while Ernesto Frieri works out his problems. The eight-year veteran with the sidearm delivery picked up his first save in a 6-3 win Monday over Cleveland. It was just his fourth save in 451 career games.
Smith said he had fun after waking up with a feeling he would get a shot against one of his former teams.
”It doesn’t matter what inning I’m throwing. I pitch people the same,” Smith said.
REDS: A year after not recording a save, Jonathan Broxton is closing games again for Cincinnati, at least temporarily. He had four saves in as many chances going into Tuesday in holding the role until Aroldis Chapman returns from facial injuries sustained from getting hit by a line drive in spring training.