03/05/2004 8:00 AM ET
K-Rod is growing up fast
Angels phenom being groomed to close
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Maybe the 2002 World Series was a bit unfair to Francisco Rodriguez.
The kid from Caracas, Venezuela, became the Angels' playoff phenom of a set-up man after a September call-up in which he struck out 13 batters in 5 2/3 scoreless innings.
Once the bright lights of the playoffs shined on him, he kept it going, flashing a mid-to-high-90s cut fastball and biting slider.
He left with a World Series ring, his name in the game's annals, and a boatload of expectations.
Rodriguez's first five big-league victories were recorded in the postseason, tying the all-time record for playoff wins in one year set by Randy Johnson in 2001.
Rodriguez's 28 postseason strikeouts were the most by a reliever in October in Major League history, 10 more than Jesse Barnes in 1921 and John Rocker in 1999.
Everybody was busy awarding him the following year's Rookie of the Year award and wondering how much longer Troy Percival would be closing games in Anaheim.
More than a season later, they're still wondering.
Rodriguez, who recently turned 22, overcame a slow start to put together a solid 2003 rookie campaign, but he wasn't even the set-up man. That job went to Brendan Donnelly, who led the AL in holds and posted a 1.58 ERA.
All of this while Percival keeps rolling along as the team's unquestioned closer.
This doesn't mean Rodriguez won't eventually get the gig, though. In fact, his pitching coach, Bud Black, says he thinks it will happen if Rodriguez continues his progression.
"I do think Frankie can be the closer," Black says.
"And he's learning all the things that go into that role. I still think there's a little bit of thrower in Frankie, where he just turns the ball loose. But I also think he's getting better at concentrating on working counts and working hitters. That can sometimes take years to develop."
Rodriguez says he's not concerned about his role.
"I'll do whatever they want," he says. "I'll close, set up, do long relief, even start if that's what they want. As long as I'm in the big leagues and I get to pitch, that's all I care about."
But he admits that his recent Winter League experience as the closer for Venezuela's Aragua Tigers was fun.
"I like getting into that mentality," Rodriguez says. "I like knowing you only have to get three outs and the game is over. It puts everything on the line."
Percival, who cut his teeth as a closer with the tutelage of all-time saves leader Lee Smith, says he likes what he sees from Rodriguez so far.
"I think he's definitely got the stuff to do it," Percival says. "Now it's just a matter of getting a real good feel for the game, asking a lot of questions, and realizing that you have to be willing to give up a run or two. The only thing that matters is winning the game."
Rodriguez started off miserably in 2003 but kept his cool, fixed a few mechanical flaws, and ended up having a quietly outstanding year: an 8-3 record, 95 strikeouts in 85 innings, a respectable 3.03 ERA and a league-leading batting-average-against statistic of .172.
He says he learned quite a bit about pitching in the process -- basic tenets that seem to fit right into that closer mentality.
"I know that I'm not going to pitch 40 scoreless innings in a row or strike out every guy I face," Rodriguez says.
"I'm going to struggle. I could give up 10 runs in one inning. That's baseball, and it's a crazy game, man."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.