K-Rod falls short in ambassador role

TORONTO – He was pitching for his country, but in a sense this was Francisco Rodriguez's first audition as a member of the New York Mets, seizing the ninth inning of a game that, until he entered, had the feel of just another exhibition game.

Rodriguez received a passing grade for the pitching portion of this mid-March tryout. He ramped up his fastball to 94 mph while striking out Kevin Youkilis for the final out and saving Venezuela's 5-3 win over Team USA, which appeared only intermittently interested in the outcome, with both teams already having claimed a spot in the second round of the World Baseball Classic in Miami.

Less impressive was his postgame performance. In a setting that is all about growing the game's popularity globally, which presumably means the players understand their roles as ambassadors, Rodriguez told the Venezuelan media representative that he would not speak to reporters, the same posture he has maintained since Venezuela began playing exhibitions in Florida last week. English-language media, media from his own country, Japanese media – K-Rod was determined to pitch a shutout.

What should have been a feel-good story about Venezuela and K-Rod slowly was taking on a different cast – that the Mets had traded not only for a Putz (J.J.) this winter but also a putz.

But with Greg Bouris of the players' association interceding, Rodriguez finally was cajoled to make his way to the informal media staging area, almost 90 minutes after the game had ended. He was engaging, answering all inquiries at length, including this one: Why would a guy who can handle this part of the job so well, in English, Spanish and perhaps even Chinese, for all we know, have clammed up so completely here?

It was almost as if he was waiting for the question.

"Well, the way the Venezuelan team was criticized, I don't like that," he said. "We're here for one target, trying to make the Venezuelan name, put it the highest on the face of the earth. Unfortunately, our people are not doing that.

"Instead of helping us, building us, they're trying to stick it to us. That's not right. We're trying 120 percent, and unfortunately we're not getting the support we need to get. That's one of the reasons why I don't want to speak to the media and I don't want to speak to the people, and unfortunately some people might get upset with the words that I'm saying [but] that's the truth. You ask any player in the clubhouse, they'll say the same thing. We got our ass kicked the other night, but instead of helping us, no, they're trying to stick it to us."

Venezuela, after being pummeled 15-6 Sunday night by Team USA, caught some heat, especially manager Luis Sojo, who burned two of his better starters, Carlos Silva and Felix Hernandez, in his opening game against Italy instead of saving one for the USA. He also was caught in an apparent fib, claiming that Seattle insisted he use its two pitchers on that day, while Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said he had no conversations with the Venezuelan staff.

Slugger Magglio Ordonez was booed by the Venezuelan contingent here for his appearance at a rally supporting Venezuelan president's Hugo Chavez's winning campaign to abolish term limits, setting himself up for another six years in charge.

But still, that would seem comparatively mild to what Rodriguez is liable to hear in Queens if the Mets stumble. The over-under on the first "K-Fraud" headline is Mother's Day. If he reacts the same way to that as he does this, fans will hear more out of Mr. Met than K-Rod.

K-Rod's inning of work was not a clean one, a foreshadowing of what Mets fans are advised to expect. He walked leadoff man Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies to bring the tying run to the plate. Last season, even as he rang up a record 62 saves, Rodriguez walked the first batter he faced 10 times in 76 appearances. By contrast, Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon issued just one walk to the first batter he faced in 67 appearances.

Rollins already has made it known he doesn't care much for the Mets' theatrics, and that was even before they added K-Rod, whose saves don't become official until he drops to his knees and points to the heavens.

"I can't change that," Rodriguez said of Rollins' disaffection for the Mets. "I know we're going to see them 19 times in our division. I know that's not the last time I'm going to face him. The rivalry, sometimes it's fun to have, but we as players don't take it personally. Just go out and play our game.

"I leave that to the fans. They pay me to get him out. He gets paid to try to get a base hit against me. By the end of the day, we're still humans. What happens on the field stays on the field."

Rodriguez retired Dustin Pedroia on a fly ball, but Derek Jeter reached on an error and the tying runs were on base. But Jeter was thrown out on the back end of a double steal (how often do you think you'll ever see that happen?), and moments later, the Venezuelan dugout emptied as Youkilis went down swinging.

Asked if he felt like this was his first chance to show them what he can do, he shook his head.

"They haven't seen me in the past," said the former Angel, "but I wasn't thinking about that. I was trying to go out there for myself and go out there and get it done.

"For some reason, I feel like I'm at another level. Just to wear Venezuela's jersey is totally different. I don't know why, but it's different to play for your country.

"Now that will be my next step, going back to New York and stepping out there and seeing the feeling there. I know it's probably going to be the same or a lot better, a lot of energy."

Rodriguez said he feels healthier than he did last season, when he was bothered by a bad ankle.

"It's totally different now," he said. "I feel 100 percent."

While Venezuela was bent on making a "statement," as Sojo put it, after being clobbered by the U.S. on Sunday night, Davey Johnson appeared more concerned about getting his pitchers worked, using eight of them Tuesday.

"This game had a different feel," Jeter said, "than the first two games."

The only thing really at stake for the U.S. was the $300,000 that went to the top seed, money that would have gone to USA Baseball for its amateur programs and such.

Venezuela draws surprising Netherlands in its first game, while Team USA will play top seed Puerto Rico. Rodriguez said Venezuela knows enough not to take the Dutch lightly, especially after they vanquished the heavily favored Dominican Republic twice.

Enough to make him glad he wasn't Dominican?

Rodriguez laughed.

"Trust me," he said, "a lot of people right now don't want to be Dominicans, after that game. But people have to understand, this game is up and down. Baseball can get you pretty good and pretty bad."