Friday, August 29, 2008

By Bruce Nye - Columnist

On August 1, 2008, with the Angels leading 1-0 in the 9th inning at Yankee Stadium, Frankie Rodriguez was facing MLB’s best player, A-Rod and had a 3-2 count. The next pitch surprised A-Rod, he was looking for K-Rod’s nasty curve or slider. Instead, Frankie struck him out with his latest pitch, a straight change. A-Rod just stood and stared.

Less than a month later, on August 28th, Frankie recorded his 51st save of the year – a personal best for him. Seven more saves and he sets the MLB record and marches into history. Most assuredly, barring injury, he will do it.

But the Angel fans are not as jubilant as they would for another of their heroes. Why?

You can count on one hand guys who have been as dominant a closer as Frankie. Rivera, Nathan and maybe Wagner, but who else? The answer is none.

It started on Sunday February 17, 2008 when Frankie told an Orange County Register journalist that this will likely be his last year with the Angels:

“ Yeah, probably, Probably,” the two-time All-Star closer said. “If they wanted me here, they would have done something a long time ago. But in the meantime, I have to put that out of my head. I can’t be thinking they don’t want me here or anything like that. Just do my job.”

That the Angels don’t want him beyond this season is “not what I’m saying,” Rodriguez said, “it’s just something I can’t control.”

Guys, I don’t want to talk about that,” he said when asked if he was eager to test his value on the free-agent market next winter. “Maybe in the middle of the year, we can talk about that.”

This conversation resonated throughout Orange County like the latest after-shock. In Orange County, that’s like booing the Little Boys Choir at the Christmas Pageant. Angel fans aren’t used to a 26 year-old star player who came up through the farm system with his best years ahead of him saying good-bye. Holy Tim Salmon! Holy Garret Anderson!

Rodriguez has been miffed about not receiving a long-term contract to his liking even though the Angels offered a 3-year deal. His eyes and ears have been on Mariano Rivera’s gaudy 3-year, $45 million contract, which pales his one-year $10 million contract he has this year. If the 39 year-old Rivera can be paid that amount, why can’t he?

To his credit, K-Rod has performed exceedingly well this year. He has 51 saves now and blown only 5 save opportunities. There is something different, however. The stats tell a different story.

Rivera is on a pace for 36 saves this year with a 1.48 ERA and a WHIP of .068. Nathan is on a pace for 43 saves and his ERA is 1.45 with a WHI of 0.86. Frankie’s ERA and WHIP are on a pace for 2.60 ERA and 1.27, respectively.

The once feared strike-out closer has been walking more hitters and given up more hits. At one point during mid-season, only 14 of his 43 saves have come with 1-2-3 innings.

Frankie says, “The walks are kind of high. That’s the only thing that’s irritating. You’ve got to give credit, though. They’re not chasing pitches they usually do.

Previously, Rodriguez had been able to get hitters to chase a hard-breaking slider in the dirt, but now he says his time in the league has brought a familiarity about what he throws. That, plus videotape have allowed hitters to catch up, even if only a little.

“I’ve got to make a lot better pitches,” he said. “The hitters are working it. I wish I was striking all the hitters out on three pitches, but this is the big leagues. It’s not a Nintendo game.”

All of this had led the Angel faithful to wonder if the trend will continue and perhaps the Front Office should spend their off-season money elsewhere. The Angels have a terrific bullpen now being bolstered by newcomer Jose Arredondo along with Scot Shields who has set up Frankie for the years he has been the closer.

The Angels are facing their most difficult off-season with options on Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson and questions about the middle infield. And now, the attention is focused on re-signing superstar, Mark Teixeira. In short, even though the Angels are now one of MLB’s most successful franchises, the ownership under Arte Moreno has a keen eye on the business end of the franchise.

Most Angel fans are thrilled for Frankie’s quest to beat Bobby Thigpen’s 57 save record, but most are ready for him to move on. The fans will stand and applaud each save but publicly airing his contract issues left an unsettling in the stomachs of the fans. The feelings here are: “hello, thanks and good-bye.”
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