K-Rod ready to reverse the curse on Tigers closers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Francisco Rodriguez tosses with the Tigers in Lakeland on Thursday.

Lakeland, Fla. – According to the Tigers’ calendar, closer Francisco Rodriguez was eight days late getting to spring training. According to Rodriguez’s calendar, he’s right on time.

“I am not behind at all,” he said after going through a light workout with the club Thursday. “I normally don’t throw a bullpen until March 5 or 6 or 7 and usually I don’t get into a game until March 15. I will pitch four or five outings this spring, six at the most and I’ll be ready.

“Behind? I am not at all.”

Rodriguez is 34. This is his 15th big league season. The Tigers likely will defer to whatever process works for him.

“He’s been doing it a long time,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “He certainly knows himself better than a guy out of Double-A.”

Rodriguez admits, though, he was extremely annoyed by the visa issues that delayed his departure from Venezuela.

“It’s been a crazy month,” he said. “I want to be at the first day of camp. I want to get things done as quickly as possible. Unfortunately there’s a lot of things happening behind the scenes that forced me to be late. But I am glad to be here now and excited to catch up with the guys, get to know them and start building the chemistry.”

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Rodriguez, acquired from the Brewers in November for infield prospect Javier Betancourt, knows what he’s here to do. He knows the ugly recent history of closers in Detroit -- from Valverde to Benoit to Nathan to Rondon.

“There’s a lot of expectations, obviously, with all the moves we made,” he said. “They put in a lot of work to fix the holes they had last year. … This is something I’ve been doing for so long. You are always appreciative when teams take the opportunity to give you that responsibility, that big responsibility.”

Rodriguez has pitched in 859 Major League games. He’s finished 602 of them and saved 386, more than any active pitcher in baseball. He gets the drill.

“There’s always going to be pressure every single day,” he said. “You just learn to go out and relax and give it your best. This is not my first rodeo. I have been around long enough to know what’s expected on a winning ball club.”

There are closers who get the job done with brute force – Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, Trevor Rosenthal – and there are those who get it done with guile. The top two saves leaders of all time, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, are in the latter group.

As is Rodriguez.

“It’s 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical,” he said. “Physically, you are born with that gift. But you’ve got to be strong mentally. You’ve got to have a short memory. You’ve got to be able to not get nervous when it counts.”

Earlier in his career Rodriguez threw mid- to upper-90 mph gas. His average fastball the last two seasons was below 90 – 89.6. Yet, he posted a 92-percent save rate (82 of 89), with a strikeout-walk ratio of 135-29.

“Some guys throw 95 and it looks like 90 and others throw 90 and it looks like 95,” Ausmus said when the trade was made. “When I look at Frankie, I see a little bit of Trevor Hoffman, a guy who came up throwing 95 but has turned to the changeup. Both have tremendous changeups, swing-and-miss changeups.”

Francisco Rodriguez on the Tigers: “There’s a lot of expectations, obviously, with all the moves we made.”

Hitters last season swung and missed at Rodriguez's change-up 40 percent of the time, getting just 11 hits on 112 balls in play. Pretty effective for a pitch he went to mid-career as a replacement for a faltering slider.

“Basically I reinvented myself,” he said. “This game is about adjustments. Every single year you’ve got to make adjustments. Obviously, everybody knew my slider. I tried to show them something different. I change speeds and move the ball here and there.”

American League hitters haven’t seen Rodriguez since 2008 (with the exception of 23 games in 2013), so his change-up is going to be a new challenge for them.

“I play mental games (with the hitters) and try to make them feel uncomfortable in the batter’s box,” he said.

Essentially, he has a master’s degree in the art of pitching, which he explained in a teleconference after the trade was made.

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“I can’t just go out there and blow people away,” he said. “But I can read hitters, figure out what they are trying to do and go by the situation of the game. The game and the inning says how you are going to pitch. That's one thing I developed and it's something I put a lot of pride in -- read the swing, read the situation.

“I just learned how to pitch, how to just go out every day and compete."

Once he settles in, Rodriguez said he would love to share his knowledge and experience with anyone willing to learn. The impact he could have on young relievers like Bruce Rondon, Angel Nesbitt and others was a secondary reason general manager Al Avila so aggressively pursued him.

“I will try to teach them how to go about their business every day,” Rodriguez said. “How to prepare themselves to embrace the pressure. It’s not only Bruce. Anybody who wants or needs my help, I will be there for them.”

But first things first. As of mid-day Thursday, he’d yet to meet all his teammates or spend much time with Ausmus or pitching coach Rich Dubee.

“I need to get to know the guys so I can work with them and try to build that chemistry,” he said. “Pretty much I am a stranger walking in. Even though there are guys I’ve known for a long time, you still have to adapt to a new team.”

He’s got about a month and a half.

Twitter @cmccosky