Detroit — If you think Francisco Rodriguez is content with his current role in the Tigers’ bullpen – well, you don’t understand how hot his competitive fires burn. He is far from content.
“That’s a question that really irritates me,” he said before the game on Tuesday. “Am I being judged on 10 outings? What about the other 400-plus saves? What about the almost 1,000 appearances?
“I made my living in tough, pressure situations. I have not made my living being a mop-up guy.”
No, he hasn’t. In his 16th season, he is the game’s active saves leader. His 437 saves rank behind only Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith in the history of Major League Baseball.
“They have to test me?” he said, incredulously. “They have to find out if I can pitch? That’s exactly what it means. I’ve never been in a mop-up situation. I haven’t pitched the last 15 years, being consistent, putting up numbers being mop-up. That’s not how I’ve made my living.
“But I guess I’ve got to be ready when I’m told and that’s it.”
Let’s back up.
Rodriguez lost his closer’s role after he’d blown four saves and lost five games in the first month and a half of the season. After 13 outings, opponents were hitting .352 with a .722 slugging percentage and a 1.129 OPS.
He had allowed four home runs in 11.2 innings.
The move was justified.
But when it was announced that Justin Wilson would be the closer, manager Brad Ausmus said he wanted to give Rodriguez time to work himself back to form.
“The goal is for Frankie to get right and get back to the way he pitched for us last season,” Ausmus said. “Our bullpen is better when Frankie Rodriguez is pitching at the back end.”
Those words ring hollow to Rodriguez. For one, he’s not heard them directly from Ausmus or pitching coach Rich Dubee.
The fact is, according to Rodriguez, he hasn’t heard much of anything from his manager or his pitching coach.
“You talk to Brad more than I have,” he said. “To be honest, no one talked to me. No one tells me anything. They never ask my opinion. They never ask me if I am ready to do that or not. It was their decision. Nobody asks me anything.
“Ask Dubee how many times he’s talked to me. They are the ones who have all the answers.”
After the 7-6 loss Tuesday, and after Rodriguez got three big outs with a runner at second in a 6-6 tie in the seventh inning, Ausmus responded to the charges.
“I talked to Frankie for 15 minutes in Houston,” Ausmus said. “On his request, actually. He texted me and asked if we could talk and I sought him out the next day. We talked about his situation for about 15 minutes.
“This door opens from both sides. Players often come in and talk. That’s never been in question. I will talk to anybody on this team about anything.”
Secondly, Rodriguez feels like he is back to form, though it’s hard to maintain any form without regular use.
“How is it going to be better if I don’t pitch?” Rodriguez said. “They say one thing, but their actions say something else. How am I supposed to take that if I don’t get into the game when the game is close or we have the lead?
“How am I supposed to take that?”
Rodriguez has pitched better of late. In five June outings, he pitched 4⅓ scoreless innings, allowing only two hits. Going back to his last eight outings, he’s allowed two runs on a two-run homer by Royals' Eric Hosmer, in 7⅓ innings.
Ausmus has begun to integrate him more in the sixth and seventh innings.
“I’ve been saying for a week and a half now that I’d like to get him in higher-leverage situations,” Ausmus said. “We’re a lot better team when he’s pitching in those situations successfully.”
Shane Greene and Alex Wilson have pitched well as the primary set-up me and Justin Wilson has converted four of the five save opportunities he’s had since taking over the role, though he gave up the game-winning home run to David Peralta Tuesday.
“Frankie is moving in the right direction,” Ausmus said. “After we spoke in Houston, I already had it in my mind to try and use him more in higher-leverage situations. I used him in Kansas City and he gave up the two-run home run to Hosmer.
That was a little bit of a step-back, but it was just one pitch.
“Now it’s just a matter of finding the right time to bring him back in the fold.”
Ausmus was asked if he might reclaim the closer’s role.
“That depends on Justin Wilson’s performance,” he said. “If he performs well, he will keep closing games. But from a broad perspective, we’re better when Frankie is closing and we have all these other guys in front of him. It makes us deeper.
“Another reason we want to get him back in the fold is because we are going to wear Alex Wilson and Shane Greene out.”
Ausmus reiterated that there is no ill-will between he and Rodriguez. He understands and even agrees with the point Rodriguez was making.
“These guys want to compete and Frankie has been one of the best closers in the game for a long time,” he said. “I agree that he’s better, and he’s been better in situations when the game is on the line. He elevates his game and he takes advantage of hitters with the type of pitcher he is.
“I agree with that completely and I told him that when we talked in Houston. Now we have to get him back in those situations because we feel his pitches are coming around and he’s throwing like we want him to.”
For the time being, Rodriguez will continue to, as he said, be ready whenever they want him to pitch.
But he’s not happy about it.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “Especially when people ask me if I am ready to pitch in those (high-leverage) situations. My entire career I’ve been doing that. It’s tough. It bothers me when they ask me about it.”
Diamondbacks at Tigers
First pitch: 7:10 p.m., Wednesday, Comerica Park
TV/radio: FSD, 97.1
RHP Taijuan Walker (4-3, 3.46), Diamondbacks — This will be his first start since May 19. He was shelved by a blister on this pitching hand. When he’s right, though, he gets a ton of ground balls (50 percent of balls in play are hit on the ground). He features a splitter and a cutter, both with downward action.
RHP Jordan Zimmermann (5-4, 5.72), Tigers — He has made positive strides in his last two starts, both quality starts. He allowed one run against the White Sox and two against the Red Sox. He has rediscovered his slider, but against the Red Sox, his well-placed fastball was the pitch that clicked.