DUNEDIN, Fla. – The career of Francisco Rodriguez should have ended last July when he was released by Washington. The Nationals were the second team to dump him in three week. His fastball lost velocity, his pitches lacked movement, and the once-great K-Rod was humbled by double-A hitters.
Rodriguez already had a World Series ring and racked up enough saves to have a shot at the Hall of Fame. It appeared time for one of baseball’s elite closers to walk away. He instead chose to regroup. Rodriguez, now vying for a spot with the Phillies, took time to rest the groin and hamstring that deterred his season. He tried out for teams in the winter and performed well enough that the Phillies took a shot on him.
The righthander returned to the mound Friday for the first time in 7 months, pitching a scoreless inning in a 2-1 Grapefruit League loss to Toronto. Rodriguez was back.
“I love the game,” the 36-year-old said when asked what keeps him going. “I don’t think I have to prove anything. I don’t think I went to Walmart and bought 900 appearances and 437 saves. I did that with a lot of pride and hard work. This is the only thing I know how to do, play baseball. God gave me the opportunity to throw a baseball and I’m going to continue to do it.”
The Phillies will carry eight pitchers in their bullpen and six of those spots seemed to be claimed. There is a chance that Rodriguez, with a strong camp, could claim one of the final jobs. He was awful last season (7.82 ERA in 28 appearances with Detroit) but had a combined 2.85 ERA in the three seasons that led up to it. It was worth a shot to see if Rodriguez could regain his old form under Phillies pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who was Rodriguez’ pitching coach in Milwaukee when he rejuvenated his career and had all-star seasons in 2014 and 2015.
“He’s a great pitching coach,” Rodriguez said. “I had a great relationship with him when I was in Milwaukee. One of the reasons I got the opportunity to keep pitching after 2013 was him. Because of all the confidence that he passed to me and all the work that he put into it. He’s a great pitching coach and I’m looking forward to working with him.”
Rodriguez circled the ballpark Friday afternoon, trying to find a place to park his white truck. He had never been to Dunedin Stadium. Rodriguez was lost. He eventually found a spot but two hours later he would be lost again. He walked the first batter he faced.
“I felt kind of lost the first couple of batters,” Rodriguez said. “It had been a while. But after this outing it should be back to normal. I’m looking forward to having a great spring, that’s for sure.”
Rodriguez recovered. He picked up a strikeout and a pair of groundouts. He regained control of his fastball and change-up. He no longer felt lost on his long road back to the majors.
“It says a lot about his character,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We’re going to use the word, ‘grit,’ probably pretty frequent. When things are a little bit tough or you’re not at your best, what do you present? What do you want to see happen? For him, he wants to keep competing. We want to give him an opportunity to compete because he is going to have a great impact on our young players. He is crafty enough to where if he’s commanding his fastball, he can mix all of his pitches and still get outs.”