Cactus can't keep All-Star closer K-Rod down
Brewers righty saved games over early months of season with spines in his foot
MINNEAPOLIS -- He signed late, reported to Spring Training late and was not even the Milwaukee Brewers' closer until dawn broke on Opening Day, but those who know Francisco Rodriguez best cannot help but crack a smile when they're asked about the most impressive part of K-Rod's return to Major League Baseball's All-Star Game.
It's that Rodriguez pitched the first two months of the season with hundreds of cactus spines embedded in his left foot.
"When you have children and you're hunting for one of them," said Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, "all sense of logic is lost."
So Boras, a parent himself, understood perfectly when he learned Rodriguez had hustled out the back door of his Spring Training residence in search of his young son. Rodriguez's bare left foot found a low-growing cactus, instead.
Word spread quickly through the clubhouse the next morning of Rodriguez's odd injury. For the next 2 1/2 months, Rodriguez pitched in pain and pulled spines from his foot, one by one, some as long as an inch.
"He's an All-Star now, but it wasn't funny at the time, I'll tell you that," said fellow All-Star Aramis Ramirez. "I saw people joking around at first, but not after I saw it for myself."
"I felt hurt for him," said Carlos Gomez. "Getting stuck with a cactus is not really fun."
The incident delayed Rodriguez's, ahem, Cactus League debut, but he eventually began pitching on that painful foot and prepared to be the Brewers' setup man. On Opening Day, manager Ron Roenicke, concerned about incumbent closer Jim Henderson's velocity, quietly changed Rodriguez's role. He responded by holding opponents scoreless until his 20th appearance and setting a Brewers record with 27 saves before the All-Star break.
"The way it was explained to me, it could be two days, it could be a week, we didn't know how long," Rodriguez said. "It depended on how long Henderson would be out for. So I didn't expect anything. I put in my head, 'Go day by day.' Every day I came in, I waited for them to say, '[Henderson] is ready and back.' That time never came."
The Brewers will have three players in the starting lineup of Tuesday's All-Star Game (watch on FOX) -- third baseman Ramirez, catcher Jonathan Lucroy and Gomez making a rare appearance in left field -- in large part because of Rodriguez's work in spite of those painful spines.
How many did he wind up pulling?
"If I say 500, people think I'm lying," Rodriguez said. "I'm not. It was totally the whole bottom of my foot."
Rather than risk infection by cutting them out, Brewers medical staffers suggested patience. Rodriguez simply let his body do the work itself, and day by day, week by week, the spines worked their way to the surface. When one would emerge, Rodriguez or an athletic trainer would pluck it out with a tweezers.
Deep into May, they kept plucking.
"One time I would sit down and pull 11," Rodriguez said. "The next time, 16. Then 13. Little spines. I was going nuts."
The last one came out on its own.
"I pulled off my sock and it took it right out," Rodriguez said. "It was after a game. Next year, I'm getting a different apartment."
Next year, Rodriguez may have more offers to choose from. Before this season he had not been a closer since 2011, when the Brewers acquired him on the night of the All-Star Game with plans to make him a setup man.
That move delayed Rodriguez's quest for 300 saves, a milestone he finally reached last June. Thanks to resuming closer duties this season, Rodriguez, who is participating in his fifth All-Star Game 10 years after his first, has moved up to 12th on Major League Baseball's all-time list with 331 career saves.
This year, he has passed the likes of Goose Gossage and Jose Mesa. Next is Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers' 341 saves.
"It will be nice," Rodriguez said. "Any time you pass a Hall of Famer, that's nice."
But he insisted he is more focused on a different number: Brewers victories. They became more difficult to come by of late, with the team losing 11 of its final 13 games before the break. They still lead the National League Central by one game over St. Louis.
"Right now, I have not even been thinking about what I have ahead, who's ahead. I don't want to start doing that yet," Rodriguez said. "The year that I believe is going to be my last year, I'll start looking around and see where I'm at. Right now, that's not healthy for me."
Rodriguez won't turn 33 until January and plans on pitching more seasons. Boras, saying that he does not like the notion of "shopping" free-agent clients, conceded he expects to get many more calls than last winter.
"He has what few, few players have in the big leagues: Those last three outs are his home," Boras said. "That's where he was raised. That's where he lives. The three outs for him are where he belongs. For others, it's new and challenging and more. That's why I think he's so good."