Up three runs last night, the Washington Nationals rolled the dice and allowed Henry Rodriguez to attempt to close the game for them. The gamble worked. Rodriguez retired three of the four batters he faced with the one batter reaching base on an Ian Desmond error. He earned save No. 9 on the season, and Nats fans were left having to pick up the batteries from the remote they threw across the room when they saw him on the mound four batters earlier.
It's safe to say, Nats fans and the Nationals organization themselves are on very opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to Rodriguez. Mike Rizzo, Steve McCatty, and his teammates seem to be enamored by his ability, while fans and bloggers alike seem to be infuriated by his inconsistent performance. For every 100 MPH fastball, there's a 48 foot slider. For every 1-2-3 inning, there are frames with three consecutive walks.
In the last 24 hours, both Rizzo and injured closer Drew Storen have come to the defense of Rodriguez. That in itself is not surprising at all. Any good teammate or front office figure knows that confidence in an immensely important part of any sport. It doesn't matter what anybody says about professional athletes being grown men, or being above the ability to be rattled. Confidence is key. But Storen and Rizzo's statements went beyond simply padding a teammate's confidence. Both of them seemed to indicate that not only does Rodriguez have the stuff to get it done, but that he has the stuff to be one of the best closers in the game.
Mike Rizzo said:
"He's going to be a shutdown closer in the near future. He's pretty darn good right now. When he's on, he's unhittable, and when he's off he struggles, and that's like a lot of them."
Drew Storen said:
“I think he’ s gonna be all right. I mean, his stuff is through the roof, way better than anybody else’s in the league. But it’s just a matter of applying it in the right way.”
So how are Nationals fans supposed to swallow that while they watch walk-off grand slams and multiple wild pitches per inning? Many had already begun discussing who the next closer would be before Rodriguez was put in the game last night. Some fans are calling for Tyler Clippard to fill in until Drew Storen returns. Others think Craig Stammen has earned the opportunity to be a big time closer in this league.
Washingtonians want to love Henry, they want him to be freakin bueno, but they also want to win. Winning is the ultimate goal and Rodriguez has been the most apparent road block to that goal multiple times this year.
But even with that said, who can honestly disagree with Rizzo and Storen? Rodriguez's stuff is absolutely electric. He throws as hard as anyone in the game, and his "off speed" pitches bite as well as the top flight relievers in baseball. I dont think there are any Nationals fans who can seriously watch this guy pitch when he's on and can not imagine what he COULD be.
I think ultimately the reason this question cuts to the core of so many in Washington is that it is rather symbollic of this team as a whole. Stephen Strasburg has an innings limit and we need to decide whether to shut him down for the good of the future or to go for it all this year. Danny Espinosa has been terrible at the palte, but do we sacrifice his future for a player with less upside that is performing better now in Steve Lombardozzi? These are the same sort of questions that are raised with the Rodriguez debacle.
In fact, just last evening Dave Nichols of District Sports Page and I were having a conversation about Rodriguez himself. Nichols was arguing that Rodriguez didn't even need to try to throw his slider because his fastball and changeup were enough. The slider just gets him into trouble. I argued that yes, he has trouble with it now, but it is such a nasty pitch that it could be an unbelievable asset if he masters it. The problem was, neither of us were wrong. We just had different focuses.
We all want to win now, because we haven't won in so long. At what point though do you have to draw the line? At what point does promise absolutely have to turn into production? At what point are blown saves worth more than September wins. I don't have all the answers, in fact I'm sure no one does. But at some point, someone's going to have to make a decision. Either way, strap in because every time Henry takes the mound, it's bound to be a wild ride.