ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. In a season that has frequently veered off course with injuries and inconsistency, one facet of the Tampa Bay Rays game has been right on target.
The man and the moment have become a hands-down hit as in bulls-eye.
Its the pantomime act Tampa Bay fans and teammates have come to love, when closer Fernando Rodney celebrates his latest save by firing an imaginary arrow skyward and pretending to watch it soar toward the heavens.
Even first baseman Carlos Pena has gotten in on the fun now, often trotting over to stand beside Rodney and discuss the flight of the fictional projectile.
Every time I shoot the arrow, he comes over and asks me, Wheres it going? and I say, Oh, I think it go more left side today, Rodney says in his thick Dominican accent.
A Rodneys Archery Club fan following has already sprung up at Tropicana Field, with fans holding signs and building a Twitter following. Rays broadcaster and former big-league first baseman Orestes Destrade has dubbed him Rodney Hood. And his biggest fan of all is Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who has come to savor the bow-and-arrow bit as much as anyone.
I still dont know what it means, but I love it, absolutely love it, he said.
Of course, whats made Rodneys target-practice routine a particular crowd-pleaser is the sheer number of times the 35-year-old veteran and first-year Ray has performed it.
Considering hes saved 24 of 25 games this season, thats a lot of make-believe bow work to punctuate a job well done.
Heading into Friday's games, Rodneys save total ranks tied for second only to the 25 by Baltimores Jim Johnson in the majors. And along with his jaw-dropping ERA of 0.96 fueled by an accurate fastball that hits 99 mph and a confounding change-up in the low 80s hes emerged as arguably the most valuable player for the Rays this season.
The only other Tampa Bay player whos been as good on a regular basis is starting pitcher David Price, with his 11-4 record and 2.82 ERA. Not surprisingly, both were voted by their peers onto the American League All-Star team competing Tuesday in Kansas City the first such nod for Rodney, now in his 10th season.
"I say thank you God for the opportunity on the new Tampa team, and I say thank you to Joe (Maddon) for giving me the opportunity to be the closer this year," Rodney told reporters Sunday after hearing the news.
Rodneys elation is certainly understandable given his situation the previous two seasons a pair of frustrating campaigns with the Los Angeles Angels. He had signed as a free agent with the Angels on the heels of his dominant 2009 showing with the Detroit Tigers, 37 saves in 38 chances. But in Anaheim, Rodney struggled to find the mark after taking over the closing duties from Brian Fuentes.
In his first season, he posted a 4-3 record with a 5.71 ERA and saved 14 games in 21 attempts. But last year, things got worse. Rodney saved only three of seven games while posting a 3-5 record with a 4.50 ERA and lost his closers job in the process. Unhappy, he asked the Angels for a trade as the season neared an end.
The Rays, meanwhile, were in the market for a potential fill-in for injured closer Kyle Farnsworth, who finished the 2011 season with ongoing elbow soreness that would force him to start this season on the 60-day disabled list. So in the offseason, Tampa Bay vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman signed the journeyman reliever to a one-year, 2 million deal with a team option in 2013.
Honestly, our guys upstairs thought he was going to have a good year, Maddon said. Looking at a lot of the things we look at, we thought this would be the year hed really put it back together. Of course, thats a guess, based on information. But he came in here and felt good about it. I think its a combination of him feeling good about himself and liking it here maybe some nice physical and mental adjustments. And all of a sudden you have an All-Star.
Maddon had told Rodney during spring training that Farnsworth, who had saved 25 of 31 games last year with a 2.18 ERA, would be the closer. But when it became clear Farnsworth wouldnt be ready to start the season, the closers job soon fell to Rodney.
I think from the beginning, if you talked to Fernando, he really wanted to be in this moment, Maddon added. He would definitely have accepted the other role (as set-up man) had it been presented to him. But he was ready to seize this opportunity. But its more than we expected and what he expected also, I think.
Rodney was strong right from the start, displaying excellent control of his high-90s fastball while constantly fooling hitters with the whip-like action of his change-up making it appear he was throwing more heat, and keeping batters off-balance.
Its his fastball command, explained Maddon. And if you get behind (in the count), then here comes the change-up. If you're going to start taking fastball strikes on him, that makes him even more effective. Because he still has this 20 mph differential between pitches with tremendous arm speed.
Rodney actually earned a win in his first appearance this season, throwing a perfect inning with a strikeout in a 7-6 win over the Yankees on April 6. The next night he earned his first save with the Rays, pitching one-third of an inning to close out an 8-6 victory over New York. And save No. 2 came the next day, getting the final out in a 3-0 triumph. He was off and running on a special season.
In addition to drawing attention for his consistent clutch work, Rodney turned heads initially for the trademark way he wore his Rays cap slightly askew.
He continued to cap it off in style most notably the 1-0 win he saved for James Shields in Boston that helped salvage what had been a disastrous early road trip to Fenway Park.
But more his success mounted, the more Rodneys signature move the bow-and-arrow celebration on the field became a hit. Now its become a much-anticipated highlight following each of his saves.
Rodney explains that he used to do a variation of the move while playing baseball in his younger days in the Dominican Republic. He had grown up in Santo Domingo and loved to spearfish as a child, though he never went bow hunting. Nor did he ever display the bow-and-arrow flourish after starting his major league career with the Tigers in 2002.
But there was something about the Rays and their close-knit atmosphere and propensity for such eccentricities as themed attire on road trips and their post-game dance party that inspired him to get in on the festivities.
I dont know. I come here, and all the clubhouse is like a family, he said. Everybody is having a good time. And thats what I do now. I like to make something fun.
Veteran team leader Pena is impressed by the way Rodney settled into his new surroundings so quickly and made his presence felt in such a positive way.
He always keeps it loose, always enjoys himself, said Pena, also from Santo Domingo. He seems like he has this air of gratitude every single time he grabs a ball. He doesnt take one thing for granted ever. And I love that about him. He understands that hes a blessed man first of all to be pitching in the major leagues, secondly to be in this type of environment and third, because hes doing so well. Hes just very grateful.
Pena also wanted to support Rodney with his post-game theatrics: I thought, 'what should I do to join in the fun?' So hes shooting the arrow and one day in Toronto, I went over beside him and followed it and thats part of the routine now.
Set-up man Joel Peralta is one of Rodneys best friends on the team. They sit next to each other in the clubhouse and talk often.
"You know, he doesnt express himself a lot, like maybe some of us will, said the native of Bonao, Dominican Republic. Hes a more quiet guy. But hes really enjoying what hes done and what hes doing right now. He especially likes this team, and we talk about it all the time. And thats one of the things that pushes him to do better.
Taking aim with an arrow that continues to hit new heights.