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Inside Baseball | Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Angels' Rodriguez Is an Animated Special

September 12, 2004|Ross Newhan

In the suburban shadow of Eric Gagne and Troy Percival, there is no mistaking that Francisco Rodriguez has become the most exciting warmup act in baseball.

Whether the 22-year-old right-hander remains in his current role or replaces Percival as the closer next season will probably be one of the most intriguing questions of the Angels' off-season.

For now, however, there is other business, and Rodriguez -- with his displays of emotion and electrifying stuff -- continues to light up the mound with his lights-out performances.

Two years after his stunning September emergence, helping pitch the 2002 Angels to their first World Series title, he is more experienced, uninhibited and confident.

"As long as I make my pitches," he said, sitting at his locker, "I think I can get any hitter out."

Who can argue?

"I don't think there's an American League pitcher with comparable stuff," Percival said. "He's got a 95-mph fastball and two breaking pitches he can throw at will."

Sometimes, noted Manager Mike Scioscia, otherwise impassive and focused on critical issues during the course of a game, "we just shake our heads over the pitches that come out of his hand. No matter what we're focused on at any particular time, we're always aware of his talent."

The statistics are spectacular, but the film at 11 is even better.

No pitcher in Angel history has combined his ability and animation.

Not to overlook an impressive athleticism most evident on that highlight-reel play in Cleveland last Sunday, when he prevented the tying run from scoring in a 2-1 victory by sliding and blocking the plate while gloving Bengie Molina's no-look toss after the catcher retrieved an errant breaking pitch.

The exuberant battery mates ran off the field like a couple of school kids -- Rodriguez's MO.

No one is more appreciative than Rex Hudler, whose passion helped sustain a 13-year major league career and who is still accused at times of too much mustard in the TV booth.

"Look," said the Wonder Dog, "Frankie is not just punching a clock out there. He has his heart and soul in it. It's as if he's playing in the park with friends. It's fresh, contagious and it should be welcomed in the game.

"I'm sure he'll harness some of it as he gets older, but as a young guy, let him throttle up."

Hudler, of course, doesn't have to deflect the opposition's occasional view that Rodriguez, with his thigh slapping, fist pumping and vocal exclamation points, is showing them up.

Even Jarrod Washburn seemed to suggest that Rodriguez might want to ease off the throttle some.

"I'm just glad he's on my side," Washburn said. "If he wasn't, I probably wouldn't like the way he goes about it at times. The bottom line is that we have the luxury again of the best bullpen in the league, and Frankie is a big part of that. He's absolutely dominant. No one can question his stuff."

Now, as the Angels prepare for the final three weeks of intra-division games, with the wild card virtually gone and their only realistic playoff hope translating to winning the West, there is no reason to think Rodriguez will undergo a makeover.

"I'm a different person when the bullpen gate opens," he said. "I take my energy from the crowd. I feel it in my heart and blood.

"If people think I'm a hotdog or I'm showing them up, that's not my purpose, but I don't care. I'm a competitive person and I'm not going to change.

"Win or lose, I point to God when I'm done to thank him for giving me that energy and ability and the one more day to do my job. I thank him for allowing me to be myself."

Injuries and ineffectiveness prompted the Angels to move Rodriguez from minor league starter to reliever in the same year that he made his major league debut.

There's thanks to be given for that too.

In only his second full season in the majors, with a better concept of location and selection but still basically what pitching coach Bud Black calls "full gorilla" on every pitch, Rodriguez has set a club record for strikeouts by a reliever, held opponents to a .170 batting average, established a major league-best ratio of 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings and converted a modest 11 of 18 save chances when allowed to pitch the last inning.

The question of who gets the closing call -- now and in the future -- has become a delicate proposition for Rodriguez, Percival and their manager, but each has handled it diplomatically.

Percival made a point of sharing his recent 300-save moment with Rodriguez, but he knows the Angels have a business decision to make when the season ends and his two-year, $16-million contract expires.

Resilient and resolute, possibly in the final weeks of his 10th year in Anaheim, Percival knows that neither sentimentality nor respect for his ongoing performance will enter into it if the Angels conclude that the less expensive Rodriguez gives them a chance to invest elsewhere.

"Aside from his stuff," Percival said, as if preparing a sales pitch for Rodriguez as closer, "he's not afraid of any situation and has the one intangible you can't teach, the ability to come back from failure. You can't close if you can't turn your back on failure.

"I'll be proud to say that I've had a small part in what he's done and what he's going to do, but that doesn't mean that I think I'm done. I have plenty of future left, wherever it takes me, and I'll wish Frankie and the club well if it comes to that."

There are still important games to be played and it is too soon to wave goodbye. For all of the animation accompanying his ongoing success and promise, Rodriguez knows that might be a premature gesture.

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