K-Rod set to adapt, conform in name of winning
Righty prepared to coexist with fellow reliever Axford for Crew
Sudden movement has always been an integral part of Francisco Rodriguez's game.
The jerky leg kick and the off-balance follow-through that raised eyebrows when he was a rookie with the Angels in 2002 eventually became his signature move. The ninth-inning theatrics -- the choreographed and the spontaneous versions -- became his calling card.
In less than 10 seasons in the big leagues, Rodriguez has 291 saves and has positioned himself as one of the premier closers in the game. He's also transformed into "K-Rod" in the United States, "El Kid" in Latin America and the master of fist pumps, chest bumps, glove slaps, glove kisses and kisses blown to the sky.
But the man who loves the spotlight -- born to be a closer, he says -- doesn't expect to get the opportunity to close more than a couple of times a week with the Brewers. John Axford is Milwaukee's primary closer and that makes Rodriguez one of the most celebrated setup men in all of baseball. The Venezuelan star said he is fine with the latest shift for now.
"Sometimes, you have to embrace your role and take care of what you have instead of worrying about what you don't have," Rodriguez said. "You have to play it out. You have to understand their position, work it out and make that adjustment."
Rodriguez doesn't have a choice. Both he and Axford have to pitch well. The Brewers are fighting to stay on top in the NL Central, All-Star Prince Fielder can become a free agent at the end of the season and if the Brewers expect to make a run for the postseason, they'll have to lay the groundwork now. A solid bullpen is crucial for a run to the playoffs.
How Rodriguez and Axford will be used rests mostly on the shoulders of Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. The way he manages the dynamic duo at the end of games could mean the difference between a summer to remember and a fall to forget.
It helps that Roenicke, the one-time Angels coach, has known Rodriguez since El Kid was a teenager. They trust each other. It also helps that the pitcher is not likely to affect his marketability by making a fuss with his pending free agency only a few months away. It doesn't hurt that the unassuming Axford knows what it's like to split time at the end of games after having spent last season as Trevor Hoffman's understudy and later replacing him as the team's closer.
Nothing changes the fact that the Brewers have two capable pitchers available to do what is traditionally considered a one-man job. Here's another baseball truth: "Closer-by-committee" are three of the most cringe-inducing words in the game.
"We were going to see how it goes," Roenicke said. "Some of it is going to depend on who is rested more. Some of it is going to depend on getting four outs instead of just three. They may switch off a little bit. I don't have a definite plan because things change so much and it seems to have a way of working out. Frankie is a closer and Ax is a closer. They are both legitimate great closers."
Rodriguez, who was acquired by the Brewers on July 13 from the Mets for two Minor League players, appeared in the eighth inning and Axford followed in the ninth inning with saves in his first two outings with the Brewers. In his third appearance, Rodriguez gave up two runs on two hits to blow a 2-0 lead to the D-backs in the eighth inning Wednesday in a game Milwaukee won, 5-2, in 10 innings. Axford picked up the save in that game, too.
That said, Rodriguez, who had 23 saves in 26 chances with New York prior to the trade, still appears to be in line for save opportunities. Not long after he joined the club, the right-hander agreed to waive his vesting option of $17.5 million for 55 games finished and replaced it with a mutual option. The new clause gives the Brewers the freedom to use Rodriguez when necessary as the closer.
"I didn't ask to be in this position. Ron didn't want to put me in this position and Ax, he didn't want to be in this position," Rodriguez said. "We never asked to be put in this position, but we have to get together and work together. Hopefully, it will work out in a way that will be good for Ax and me at the same time. They want to win. I want to win. And that's the bottom line."
Axford, 28, has been good. The right-hander has 26 saves in 28 chances, including 23 saves in a row. He said the closer situation with Rodriguez is similar to the situation with Hoffman last year and, as a result, he's learned to be prepared at all times. He also knows he's just in his second season as the closer and there is still room for him to grow. Axford is humble. He has not forgotten about his Independent League roots or the fact that he worked as a bartender and a cell phone salesman only a few years ago to make ends meet.
He's also confident.
"I feel like I have done everything that I needed to do and it's not like the team got another closer because they needed another closer," Axford said. "We got one of the best relievers in the game to help our team and that's the biggest thing. There will be situations where he's going to close out games and I'll hopefully get in there in the seventh or eighth inning and set him up. If I close, that's going to be awesome, too."
If anybody can make Rodriguez feel comfortable about pitching in the eighth inning, it's Roenicke. The two won a World Series together in 2002 in Anaheim and Roenicke has watched the reliever evolve from a young thrower who would launch five consecutive sliders during one at-bat into a mature pitcher with a well-rounded repertoire. Roenicke was on the Angels' bench in 2008 when Rodriguez set the single-season saves record at 62.
"To not have him in that closer role is not easy for him," the manager said. "Just to be able to adjust and say, 'Hey, wherever you need me.' That's not an easy thing to do for a guy that's been a closer for a long time. But he's willing to do it. He's a winner. He wants to play for a winner and he told me that whatever that I need for him to do, he will do."
Rodriguez, who has been a full-time closer since 2005, has a 2.84 ERA in 131 career appearances in the eighth inning and a 2.67 ERA in the ninth inning. The ERAs are similar, but don't be fooled by the statistics. Rodriguez said there is a "huge difference" between pitching in the eighth and pitching in the ninth.
"The preparation is different," he said. "In the eighth, they want to try to work the count. They will bunt and do everything possible. In the ninth, the other team wants to beat you, get you one way or another. Even pitching in the seventh and eighth, there is a huge gap. I just have to be aware that I might go an inning-plus or two innings. I have to be prepared to come in with a four-run lead. I have to adjust quickly."
The Brewers are counting on the veteran's ability to adapt. They are tied with the Pirates atop the competitive National League Central, with the Cardinals just a game back and the Reds four behind. And there is no guarantee Rodriguez will be back next season.
"I just don't want it to be tough mentally for them to switch back and forth," Roenicke said. "If it gets that way, we might have to decide to go one way or the other. And then it's just conversations with them to see where they are and what they are thinking."