Fernando Rodney gets congratulations for his 30th save of the season. His days in Detroit might be numbered. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
Tigers fans have not always welcomed the sight of Fernando Rodney sauntering toward the mound, his thick body shaking from side to side, his goatee punctuating a face buried beneath a funky-looking baseball cap.
But they are beginning to love him at the most unexpected of times.
Rodney got his 30th save Tuesday night as the Tigers shook off the Cleveland Indians, 8-5, at Comerica Park. He joined Bobby Seay and Brandon Lyon in shutting off the Indians and saving a victory for the Tigers and for Edwin Jackson, who this time needed help.
But at the end, finishing things as Comerica's crowd stood yelling for a grand finale, was a pitcher who a year ago was throwing fastballs that sometimes hit backstops or crashed against batters' sternums.
He was a bit of a mess a year ago and hardly a bet to be the Tigers closer in 2009.
On Tuesday night, after a strikeout, a single, a 3-and-2 count and two ground balls, Rodney had another of his patented blemished saves.
He is the fourth Tigers relief pitcher to get 30 in a season, sidling up alongside Willie Hernandez, John Hiller and Todd Jones.
"He's done a hell of a job," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after Tuesday's game.
"He's been pretty zeroed in all year."
Payday around the corner
A 32-year-old right-hander who has scared Tigers fans to death with his circus-tent antics has settled into his role as closer in 2009. He is pitching with more confidence, never mind the occasional cardiac moments, and just in time to become a free agent in a couple of months.
It is lovely timing for a pitcher who will face business decisions this offseason.
What will he get?
Begin with thoughts of a two-year contract, maybe three. He should land anywhere from $8 million a year to as much as $10 million.
"I know that," he said, nodding, as he stood in front of his locker afterward.
He was not talking about money or numbers. He was simply acknowledging that, yes, he appreciates the stakes as he approaches what potentially could be a bonanza autumn for him.
"I don't put that thing in my mind," he said. "After the season."
Everyone in baseball knows Rodney will be a hot ticket. He has two extraordinary pitches: a fastball in the high 90-mph zone that can make batters buckle.
And, of course, his change-up, which is one of baseball's all-time best.
Rodney throws his change-up at precisely the same arm speed as his fastball. It sounds easy enough. But his mastery of the change is exceptional to a point of being almost historic. The pitch is his trademark and his meal ticket heading into the thick of this autumn's negotiations.
Again, the irony: A pitcher who most fans couldn't wait to send elsewhere -- he has indeed put his audience through the mill in 2009 and before -- is making Tigers followers wonder about next year.
Who will be the new Rodney? Is there any chance the Tigers will try to re-sign him?
The answer to the first question also answers the second. No one knows who will close.
Rodney will be heading elsewhere, for more years and dollars than the Tigers will likely be able to offer.
It is something to remember during these final weeks and games. An interesting and accomplished pitcher is in his waning days in Detroit.