By Will Burchfield
Francisco Rodriguez was the first topic of discussion in Brad Ausmus’ interview session following the Tigers’ 2-1 loss to the Mariners on Thursday in which Rodriguez yielded the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth.
Ausmus wasn’t having it.
“The story’s not K-Rod, K-rod isn’t the reason we didn’t win. We scored one run. People like to focus on the bullpen, we scored one run,” Ausmus said.
The story may not have been K-Rod on this occasion – not entirely, at least – but he’s becoming the story of this young Tigers season. Though the script is still mostly unwritten, Rodriguez is one character whose early impression is ominous.
Over nine appearances, the 35-year-old has a 6.23 ERA, a 1.85 WHIP and two blown saves. He’s yielded at least one run in six of his nine outings, a damning statistic for a pitcher who’s supposed to put the cinch on opposing batters. Ausmus might begrudge this, but one could say K-Rod has cost the Tigers three games and very nearly cost them three more.
Baseball is a team sport, but it’s a game determined by one-on-one battles. And Rodriguez, the leader of the relief core, has too often been beaten. On Thursday he he was tasked with keeping a tie game level in the top of the ninth. After striking out Nelson Cruz, he surrendered a double to Kyle Seager and a run-scoring single to Ben Gamel.
So if the story on Thursday was the sluggish Tigers offense, the falling action was Detroit’s failing arm.
“I think the results speak for themselves,” Rodriguez said. “You guys saw exactly what happened. Couldn’t get anybody out after (Cruz) and that cost us the game. Extremely disappointed. Quite simply, I just gotta pitch better. Period.”
Credit K-Rod for being accountable, a trait that hasn’t waned with his effectiveness. No matter how poorly he pitches or how dearly he costs his team, he stands up and faces the music.
“At the end of the day what matters is me putting up zeroes. That’s why I get paid,” said Rodriguez. “I’m not doing it so I gotta find a way to start doing it.”
Ausmus will be the first to agree.
“He’s struggled. We need him to pitch better, there’s no question about that,” said the manager.
In projecting K-Rod’s future, it’s helpful to consider the past. Last season, his first in Detroit, Rodriguez scuffled out of the gate before finding his footing as spring gave way to summer. By the time the leaves had settled in the fall, he had racked up 44 saves, second most in the American League.
“I think people have very short memories,” Ausmus said. “This guy did a pretty good job for us last year. In a city that has been looking for a closer that was consistent for a long time, he was that. And that’s the truth. So you don’t throw that out the window.”
The question is, how much weight does last year hold? How much faith has K-Rod earned?
“Early on (in 2016), people were worried because the velocity was down,” Ausmus said. So, you know, ‘Get him out of there, the velocity’s down, he’s getting old.’ Well, the velocity’s back.”
It had been down again to start the 2017 season, K-Rod’s fastball hovering between 87 and 88 mph for most of his first eight outings. But it was up to 89 and 90 mph on Thursday, a good sign for Rodriguez and perhaps a better sign for the Struggling Tigers Bullpen.
“You feel pretty good about it when he is pitching well, and you’ve got (Alex) Wilson, (Justin) Wilson and K-Rod,” Ausmus said.
Yes, when he is pitching well — which, moving forward, is beginning to feel like a pretty big if.
Fear not, says K-Rod. Just as Ausmus pointed to last year, the Tigers closer pointed to his 15-year career.
“I’ve been there, done that many times. I’ve been around long enough to know what I have to do,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”