Rodney set to roar on familiar turf
Hard-throwing Angels reliever ready to deal in Detroit again
ANAHEIM -- Fernando Rodney would love to grab a bat one of these nights when the Angels' offense is scuffling and ask manager Mike Scioscia -- por favor, jefe -- to let him take a hack.
Rodney knows it won't happen. Scioscia is open to fresh ideas, but not that open.
Preparing to engage his former club, the Tigers, this weekend in Comerica Park's familiar confines, Rodney talked about growing up in the Dominican Republic with visions of being another Sammy Sosa, not another Pedro Martinez.
"I was a hitter when I was a kid," said Rodney, the relief artist from Samana. "I played catcher and third base when I was young. I could hit the ball hard, man. Go ask anyone in my hometown. They'll tell you."
Rodney didn't start pitching until relatively late in the game. Baseball isn't part of high school life where he grew up, so he honed his skills on a town team that traveled to nearby villages and cities to compete.
He was 17 when Samana teammate Frank Vanderhorst was signed as a pitcher by the Kansas City Royals in 1995.
"That's when I decided I'd try pitching," Rodney said. "I had a good arm, and Frank signed as a pitcher."
Sure, why not give it a shot?
Scouts for the Tigers' organization were impressed by the compactly built right-hander with the pure heat. Detroit signed Rodney as a free agent on Nov. 1, 1997.
"When I signed, everybody in my town thought I was going to be a third baseman," Rodney said.
He was 20, embarking on a journey that would take him to Detroit in 2002 after six Minor League stops.
All Rodney took north were his fastball and a changeup he'd try to mix in for effect, but without much success.
"I couldn't throw a breaking ball," he said. "I don't throw one now."
When you can hit triple digits on radar guns and aren't heaving pitches off backstops, organizations exercise patience.
Rodney racked up impressive strikeout numbers as he climbed the ladder, and he was only conveniently wild, not off-the-charts wild. Opponents' dismal batting averages reflected a lack of joy facing the menacing Rodney.
Staying healthy was his challenge. Chicken pox sidelined him for three months in his first season of pro ball, and he took three more trips to the disabled list in 2000 and '01 with shoulder and forearm strains and a hamstring pull.
Making it to the big time in 2002, he was 1-3 with a 6.00 ERA in 20 appearances.
"When I got to the big leagues, all I had was my fastball," Rodney said. "Then I started to throw another changeup [using] a different grip. I started throwing it in games and got confident with it, throwing it 3-2 [in the count] sometimes."
In 2003, he improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio dramatically, from 1:1 to 2:1. But a severe elbow strain wiped out his '04 season.
Returning in 2005 after shoulder inflammation shut him down until June, Rodney began to blossom. His ERA was 2.86 in 39 appearances, with 42 strikeouts against 17 walks in 44 innings. He was a crucial part of the bullpen in the Tigers' pennant-winning year of '06: In 63 games, he allowed only 51 hits over 71 2/3 innings, going 7-4 with seven saves.
Rodney continued to contribute in 2007 and '08, despite three more trips to the DL with biceps and shoulder tendinitis. He saved 13 games in '08, with 49 K's in 40 1/3 innings, and had his most productive season in his walk year of '09, nailing down 37 saves in 38 attempts.
What was curious was how Rodney performed much better in the heat of the ninth inning than in setup roles.
"Maybe just a coincidence," he said, grinning.
Scioscia loves power arms, and the Angels signed free-agent Rodney for two years at $11 million on Christmas Eve.
|"I just want to win. I don't care when I pitch -- ninth, eighth, seventh. I'll pitch in any role [manager] Mike [Scioscia] wants."|
|-- Fernando Rodney|
"I've battled him for years," said center fielder Torii Hunter, Rodney's former American League Central rival with the Twins. "I'm glad he's on my side now.
"The guy can throw 99 [mph] when he wants to. He throws 92, 93 to throw strikes, then comes with the changeup. That's his best pitch. He also plays with a splitty. He can deal."
After an up-and-down spring and one rough early outing when he yielded four earned runs, Rodney flourished in the closer's role when Brian Fuentes strained his back on April 6 and went to the DL.
"He competes," Scioscia said. "He wants it."
Going a perfect 5-for-5, Rodney faced only one batter above the minimum in those save situations. Opponents are batting .108 against him. He heads to Detroit having been successful in 45 of his past 46 save situations dating to 2008, including 21 in a row.
"I just want to win," Rodney said. "I don't care when I pitch -- ninth, eighth, seventh. I'll pitch in any role Mike wants. I know Fuentes is the closer; I'll do whatever they want.
"I was looking for a team that can win the World Series every year. These guys are good. For me, that's more important than anything else. My role doesn't matter."
Returning to Detroit doesn't seem to faze Rodney. He's not the worrying kind.
"I played all my career for Detroit," he said. "We tried to win a World Series but didn't do it. Maybe this is the place."
Rodney tasted the postseason once, with the 2006 AL champion Tigers. He appeared in seven postseason games, yielding two earned runs in 7 2/3 innings while striking out nine, giving up six hits and walking five.
Rodney's relaxed manner and quirky humor spring from his background.
Samana -- pronounced SAH-ma-nah -- is a Domincan Republic resort town with white sand beaches, breathtaking blue waters and all the lure of the Caribbean.
"You can go on the Internet," Rodney said, "and find out all about it. It's a great place for a vacation."
Ervin Santana, Rodney's teammate and next-locker neighbor in the Angels' clubhouse, is familiar with Samana.
"My father is from there," said Santana, who hails from San Cristobal. "He's a tailor. He still makes my suits."
Señor Santana had departed Samana by the time Rodney came along, swinging for the fences.
Rodney has taken a bat to home plate just once in his career. He grounded out to first on a 1-2 count against the Cubs' David Aardsma on June 17, 2006, in the ninth inning of a 9-3 Tigers victory.
"They told me not to swing," he said, "but I had to swing."
He'll have to be content with frustrating hitters now with his raw heat, artful change of pace and intimidating presence.
"It's like Santana says," Rodney said, grinning. "'The storm is coming.'"
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.