K-Rod becomes closer, and rest is history
Record-tying start established after surprise move by Brewers' Roenicke
ST. LOUIS -- Francisco Rodriguez never did say goodbye to the Milwaukee Brewers. He didn't even wave adios after being traded to the Baltimore Orioles on July 23 last season.
"When I left, I remember saying, 'See you guys later,' instead of goodbye," Rodriguez said.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke and general manager Doug Melvin had made it clear to Rodriguez when they informed him he had been dealt that it was a business decision. Milwaukee was in the midst of a disappointing season. Baltimore was in a pennant race.
"They told me to keep them in mind in the offseason, that they would like to have me back, and told me not to take it personal," Rodriguez said. "I didn't."
The Brewers can be thankful for that.
Not only did Rodriguez return, finally signing a one-year, $3.25 million contract with Milwaukee the first week of February, but much to the surprise of everybody, including himself, Rodriguez, not Jim Henderson, emerged as the closer on Opening Day.
Rodriguez has given the Brewers no reason to regret that decision. Milwaukee has equaled the fastest start in franchise history, running its record to 20-7 with a 5-4, 11-inning victory against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Tuesday night.
And it was Rodriguez who worked the final inning against the defending National League champions, claiming his 13th save. He has worked 16 shutout innings this season, giving up only seven hits and four walks, and striking out 23.
Rodriguez is a perfect 13-for-13 in save situations and has tied a Major League record with 13 saves prior to May 1, which Kazuhiro Sasaki set with Seattle back in 2001. The Brewers do have one more game left in April, closing out their series in St. Louis on Wednesday, but Rodriguez said he would not be adding that record-breaking save.
"They already told me to plan on a day off," he said after earning his fifth save in as many appearances over the past week. "That's fine."
Shoot, what's there to complain about for Rodriguez or the Brewers?
Life is good.
It's better than anyone in Milwaukee, including Rodriguez, could have ever expected.
Rodriguez is the closer again, a role in which he was able to dominate while with the Angels when he led the American League in saves three times from 2005-08, earning 194, including 62 in 2008.
Having Rodriguez return to that role in Milwaukee was not the original plan. That's part of why Rodriguez didn't sign back with the Brewers until so late.
"Doug talked to his agent early on and let him know we were still interested in him coming back," Roenicke said.
The Brewers, however, knew they had to let the idea percolate. They wanted Rodriguez to check the market and see if he might find an opportunity to close somewhere else, because their plan was to use him as a setup man for Henderson, finishing off games when Henderson needed a blow.
An offer to close, however, never came.
"I had two or three offers before the Brewers, but I told my agent to wait and see what the Brewers decided to do," Rodriguez said. "As soon as their offer came, I said, 'I want to take it. It's where I want to be.'"
There was a comfort zone for Rodriguez. He had known Roenicke from their days in Anaheim, when Roenicke was on the Angels' coaching staff and Rodriguez was closing, and Roenicke had been a "straight shooter" in Milwaukee, where Rodriguez was the setup man for John Axford in 2012 and then for Henderson, prior to his trade in '13.
"I had a good relationship with the coaches, the clubhouse guys, the players, everybody in Milwaukee," Rodriguez said. "The people in Milwaukee made me feel really special, so it was a no-brainer for me to take the deal."
There were unsettling moments in the spring. Henderson had his troubles (nine appearances, nine innings, nine hits and six runs), but so did Rodriguez (six games, six innings, 10 hits, eight runs, five earned).
In the hours leading up to the season opener against Atlanta, however, Roenicke decided to go with the veteran hand, who had been through the battles before and had shown an ability to rebound from bad times.
"He told me during stretching before batting practice on Opening Day," Rodriguez said. "It was definitely a surprise."
And then in the top of the ninth inning of the opener, with the Brewers leading the Braves, 2-0, Milwaukee's bullpen door opened, and Rodriguez headed to the mound, much to the surprise of just about everybody except the Brewers' management team.
"From the day he signed back with us, Frankie knew it was an option if Henderson needed a day or if he was not performing well," Roenicke said. "Henderson understood it. He went through it himself when Axford faltered, and I made the flip-flop [with Henderson].
"When someone is not doing the job in the closer's role, you have to make a change."
And Rodriguez was an easy alternative.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.