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The serenity player

Rodriguez's new saves record has come with a saving grace -- a newfound inner peace

September 16, 2008|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

The public persona of Francisco Rodriguez is one of elbows and knees flying, of a herky-jerky, almost frenetic delivery from which the Angels closer launches a vast array of pitches that now includes not one, but two, changeups.

On the mound, Rodriguez brims with confidence and bravado. He is a bundle of nerves and energy, of intensity and focus, that when released results in his signature celebration, several violent fist pumps toward the ground and both arms pointed to the sky in the shape of a V for victory.

In the clubhouse, before and after Rodriguez saves a game, something he has done with record-setting regularity, pitching coach Mike Butcher sees an entirely different player.

"I've known Frankie since we signed him, I watched him grow up in this organization, and I've never seen him more at peace, ever, than this year," Butcher said. "It's like this inner peace he has, a calming, relaxing feeling. He's confident, and when he's on the mound, all his energy is pointed toward one spot.

"And when he celebrates, it's a release of everything he's putting out there. He leaves it all on the field, and when he's done, he's done. Game over. He threw everything he could possibly throw into every pitch, with a purpose and with a plan, and when it's all over, total relaxation comes in."

Maybe it's because Rodriguez long ago came to grips with his impending free agency, that after growing up poor and virtually parentless in hardscrabble Caracas, Venezuela, he is on the verge of signing what could be the richest contract for a reliever in baseball history, one that will secure his family's financial future for generations.

Or perhaps it's because Manager Mike Scioscia has confined Rodriguez to one-inning appearances this season, and that the save opportunities, although bountiful, have come at a pace that has allowed Rodriguez to find that perfect balance of just enough work to stay sharp but not so much he is fatigued.

Rodriguez, who on Saturday broke baseball's season record of 57 saves, set by Bobby Thigpen of the Chicago White Sox in 1990, isn't sure of the exact reason for this serenity, but he can feel it too.

"For some reason, I don't know why, but I'm more relaxed mentally and physically," said Rodriguez, who is 2-2 and has a 2.38 earned-run average, with six blown saves in 70 games. He has struck out 74 and walked 32 in 64 1/3 innings.

"Early in the year I tried to blow people away and strike out everyone with one pitch, and it wasn't working. I fell behind in counts. Now, I'm trying to make pitches earlier in the count. That's the reason I've been doing a lot better in the second half."

A pair of ankle injuries slowed Rodriguez in early April, and an adjustment in his delivery to ease the pressure on his landing foot affected his fastball, which came in at 90 to 92 mph instead of the usual 94 to 95 mph.

Questions about his loss of velocity irked and motivated Rodriguez, who seems to pitch better with a little chip on his shoulder, but those eased as the right-hander's command and performance improved.

And all the questions about free agency, which grew tedious for Rodriguez early on? The closer, who is looking for a five-year deal and could command as much as $15 million a year, has accepted those as part of the job.

"I'm trying not to worry about something I can't control," said Rodriguez, who will explore the market but hasn't ruled out a return to Anaheim. "I just relax, do my job and keep pitching. That's all I worry about instead of thinking, what do people think about me and what is the future going to hold?"

The immediate future holds another trip to the playoffs, Rodriguez's fifth in seven seasons.

Since he burst onto the scene in late 2002 as a 20-year-old phenom, setting up closer Troy Percival during the Angels' World Series run, Rodriguez has always thrived on big-game pressure, though that didn't always guarantee results.

He gave up a memorable walk-off three-run home run to Boston's Manny Ramirez in Game 2 of the American League division series last October.

But Rodriguez, now 26, seems better armed heading into the playoffs this season.

His fastball isn't quite as crisp, but he's locating it better. He still has two well-above-average breaking pitches, a curve he starts high and drops into the strike zone and a snap-hook slider that starts at the thighs and breaks into the dirt.

But the great equalizer this season has been his changeup, which Rodriguez dabbled with in 2005 and 2006, threw more in 2007 but has developed into his best pitch in 2008.

Or, to be more accurate, his best pitches.

Playing winter ball in Venezuela, Rodriguez threw only fastballs and changeups, and he developed enough confidence in his off-speed pitch to use it regularly this season.

But early on, he threw it only to left-handed hitters. When Rodriguez began getting big outs with it, he started throwing it to right-handers in June.

Then, about a month ago, while playing catch before a game, he started experimenting with the pitch.

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