It's well-known that Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels recently became the ninth reliever to reach 50 saves in a season and is closing in on the record of 57 set by Bobby Thigpen in 1990. But even before reaching that mark, K-Rod will surpass 200 saves in his young career.
Not bad for a guy who won't turn 27 until this off-season. The earliest memory most baseball fans have of Rodriguez is him freezing batters with his breaking ball during the 2002 playoffs despite having only five regular-season major league appearances. He notched five victories as a setup man for Troy Percival during that off-season and was a key component in the Angels' World Series title.
Rodriguez, who grew up in Venezuela and will become a free agent after the 2008 season, became the Angels' closer in 2005 and has had at least 40 saves each year since to reach his current total of 196.
A question-and-answer session with Rodriguez follows:
By being so close to the all-time record of 57 saves, is it tough to not think about it? Or are you so consumed and focused on what this team is doing that it doesn’t occupy your thoughts?
I’ll be honest with you, if you had asked me that question two months ago, I would have answered that I was not thinking about it. But now that I am so close, yes, I am thinking about it.
It seems like each day it’s closer to my reach, so it is a goal of mine, but I do not want that to be a distraction to my teammates, or that people think that I am only out there for that record. We have a great team, and we’ve had a great year. I have great teammates, like Scot Shields, that have made me get closer to that mark, and without his help it wouldn’t be possible.
I’m going to take it day by day, and God willing I’ll be able to get the record. I don’t know how many opportunities I’ll have the rest of my career to accomplish something like that.
How did your upbringing in the tough, mean streets of Caracas affect or influence you in developing the thick skin you possess as a ballplayer?
My childhood was a little rough. I recall very tough moments during my youth as I was surrounded by people that were all about surviving the streets, if you know what I mean. A lot of crime, and a lot of people that were into some bad things.
Thanks to my grandma stressing the important things in life, and signing me up to a little league, I was able to use the early years of my life to place me where I am right now. My history in the streets has allowed me to handle and see things in a manner that works efficiently in my career and in my life right now.
You spend a lot of time looking for ways to get better, to have an edge by studying video of yourself and of the opposing hitters, but when it comes down to asking questions about your role, who are the people you’ve talked to the most?
Well, early in my career it was Troy Percival. I was so fortunate to come into the big leagues with the Angels just about when he was about to leave. I learned a lot from him. He always allowed me to pick his brain about life in the big leagues and especially about life as a closer.
He stressed to me the importance of the everyday focus and intensity. Watching him pitch was very special to me. After Percy moved on, I started reaching out to current teammates in any role, because I’ve learned a great deal from Darren Oliver, Justin Speier and even from the starting pitchers – we always have very good ones.
To me, I try to learn from each one something about what has made them successful, and they’ve all played a role in my development with their advice. And, of course, I can’t forget about my pitching coaches, from the big leagues all the way down to the minor leagues.
Their influence over me has been immense. As everyone knows, Mariano is one of the best closers in the world, ever. Any time I’ve approached him, he tells me something that I can apply. Gagne in his prime was extremely consistent, exciting, and he brought that every game. From all of them, Smoltz, (Dennis) Eckersley, I’ve noticed the aggressiveness in attacking hitters and trusting their stuff, even in failure.
They’ve taught me that we all have different styles, but it doesn’t matter, because all we try to do is to get wins for our teams in different ways. All of those guys have made me reach deeper to elevate my game. I still learn from them.
How do you deal with a blown save or an extremely tough outing?
I simply tell myself right after the game, “Turn the page." Whatever happened that caused me to fail is over.
The next thing is, I want the ball the next day, and that’s a great thing about baseball, you can erase things very quickly because you play every day. I learn from my mistakes and try to apply whatever it is that didn’t work on a particular game, and spend time working hard to correct it.
I’ll tell you, my teammates need to see the same confidence when I walk to the mound in the ninth inning, and it doesn’t matter what happened the day before. You can’t live in the past, but day-to-day in this role I have to admit that is not always easy as a human being.
The negative makes you learn a lot, things that you may not see when everything is going smoothly. I always say that there’s a positive in every negative situation. Make your adjustments physically and mentally, and you’ve got to want the ball.
Which is the best way for you to deal with an umpire’s questionable zone?
You know, sometimes there are situations or calls by an umpire that can make you lose focus and concentration, but you must battle through it and find the way to make the next pitch. As a pitcher, you can’t control the umpire’s strike zone, they’re humans trying to do their jobs. But you can control your emotions and how you react to a given call. I’ve learned to take care of the things I control on the mound, to keep making good pitches consistently in an area, and eventually I’ll get the calls.
What do you recall the most about your abrupt introduction to the big lights in 2002?
It’s been six years and I still haven’t fully assimilated everything that I did, everything happened so fast and my life changed overnight. To be honest with you, sometimes I still can’t capture how big it was until people tell me about it.
The most exciting thing was winning the World Series, but I was too young to even understand the impact I had on it. It’s still hard for me to grasp it, considering that so many players never get to experience that feeling. Now, when I relive the feelings and the atmosphere, it brings a chill to my spine. But really, I still can’t believe that it happened to me.