Brewers’ Francisco Rodriguez savors 300th career save

MILWAUKEE — Francisco Rodriguez had waited a really long time to experience the emotion he felt recording the final out of Saturday’s victory.

Rodriguez became the 25th player in Major League Baseball history to record his 300th save, as he worked a scoreless ninth in Milwaukee’s 2-0 victory over Atlanta on Saturday afternoon.

Fittingly, the man they call K-Rod achieved his coveted milestone with a strikeout, getting Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman swinging to end the game. Years of waiting for this moment were unleashed with one single fist pump.

Rodriguez is now tied with Jason Isringhausen and Bruce Sutter at exactly 300 saves, as Doug Jones is next on the list at 303 saves. Mariano Rivera tops Major League Baseball’s all-time saves list with 634, followed by Trevor Hoffman (601 saves) and Lee Smith (478). 

“It feels great, definitely,” Rodriguez said. “You have no idea how happy and excited that I am right now. I’m blessed to be able to accomplish this milestone. Now I have to continue to work hard and hopefully stay healthy and play many years to come.”

A milestone that once looked like it would come easily to Rodriguez eventually had a realistic chance of not happening at all. On Sept. 2, 2008, Rodriguez became the youngest player in baseball history to hit the 200-save plateau.

Averaging 30 saves a season when he was 26 years old in 2008, Rodriguez seemed primed to blow past 300 in the near future. After setting the single-season record with 62 saves in 2008, Rodriguez signed a three-year, $37 million contract with the New York Mets.

He had 35 saves in 2009 with the Mets, but also posted what was the highest ERA of his career at 3.71. After posting 25 saves in 2010, Rodriguez had 23 saves for New York as the All-Star Game approached in 2011.

That’s when everything changed.

With New York out of the race, the Mets traded Rodriguez to the Brewers. He wasn’t coming to Milwaukee to be the closer, as John Axford was in the middle of a breakout season. Rodriguez had 291 career saves at the time of the trade in 2011.

Very quickly, Rodriguez had went from the game’s best closer to not closing at all. Rodriguez was a big part in Milwaukee’s run to the National League Championship Series in 2011, going 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA in 31 games for the Brewers, but had no save opportunities.

His chance to get to 300 saves appeared to come last season when Axford struggled and lost his job, but Rodriguez couldn’t seize the job on his way to the worst season of his career. One save came in April, while two more came in July. But a disastrous series in Philadelphia where he blew two saves led to his removal as closer. Rodriguez rebounded and allowed just two earned runs in his final 15 1/3 innings, but his ERA was still 4.38.

Milwaukee set out to rebuild its league-worst bullpen in the offseason and didn’t re-sign Rodriguez. It wasn’t until Axford and the bullpen struggled early that the Brewers decided to give him another try. Signed on April 17 and brought to the big leagues on May 17, Rodriguez has simply been lights out.

He hasn’t allowed a run in 15 of his 16 appearances, and he lowered his ERA to 0.59 with a scoreless inning Saturday. When closer Jim Henderson was on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, Rodriguez was perfect in save opportunities.

“A lot of people thought I was done or that I retired,” Rodriguez said. “People forgot that I was still 31 years old. In my career, only last year was a really bad year. I know what I’m capable of doing. What happened last year, as far as that I didn’t pitch the way I wanted to, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to come back once again and get it done.

“Did I want to come here? Definitely I did. I had opportunities to go somewhere else, and I didn’t. The Brewers gave me an opportunity once again, and I didn’t want to let them down.”

What’s been the difference this season? Rodriguez hasn’t hurt himself. A guy known for making things interesting only to wiggle out of jams, Rodriguez has walked just three batters this season.

“Just throwing strikes, attacking hitters and putting them away,” Rodriguez said. “I’m not trying to be too fine out there, that’s for sure. I’m trying just to get ahead of them as quick as possible and put them away. The things that got me in trouble last year was messing around trying to be too fine. When I was getting behind in the count, I was getting hit hard.”

Though Rodriguez has pitched well, Henderson is still the team’s closer. Henderson stabilized the bullpen when things were chaotic, and he wasn’t going to lose his job because of an injury.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke announced after Friday’s game that Henderson was back as the team’s closer, meaning Rodriguez might have had to wait even longer to get his chance at 300. But Henderson had pitched three straight days, meaning Rodriguez was the guy if the opportunity arose Saturday.

Having coached Rodriguez for years with the Angels, Roenicke wanted to give him a chance to earn the milestone. Roenicke knew how much 300 saves meant to Rodriguez and is now relieved the pressure of getting him there is off his shoulders.

“It makes it easier for me,” Roenicke said. “Now we just pitch the guys who I think are pitching the best, and he certainly is. It’s not like he isn’t pitching well.”

It seems as if every milestone achievement has a signature play, and Rodriguez’s 300th save was no different. Brewers shortstop Jean Segura made a beautiful, barehanded stab and strong throw to nab speedy Braves left fielder Jordan Schafer to start the ninth inning.

“It was certainly a highlight play for the fact that how quick he got to the ball,” Roenicke said. “He’s explosive when he goes to get it, and the arm slot is quick and strong. Not many guys can make that play.”

Rodriguez said the play let him relax and calm down. A pitcher as emotional as any, Rodriguez let close to five years of anticipating the moment out after Freeman swung over a changeup.

“Long time, finally it is here,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t want to let this slip away. This is a huge relief for me. I’ve been through a lot of adversity my whole career. I’ve been able to bounce back, and I’ll continue to do it.”

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