THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Fernando Rodney chuckles and shrugs his shoulders at the suggestion that regardless of the way he pitches the rest of his career, he may never replicate the success he enjoyed last season.
The Tampa Bay closer set a major league record for ERA by a relief pitcher in 2012, when he rebounded from a disappointing pair of seasons with the Los Angeles Angels to convert 48 of 50 save opportunities and finish with a 0.60 ERA in his first year with the Rays.
Besides ranking second in the majors in saves behind Jim Johnson’s 51 for Baltimore, the 35-year-old was a first-time All-Star, topped the big leagues in save percentage and set career highs for appearances and strikeouts.
Rodney knows even if he continues to pitch well in 2013, he may not come close to matching those numbers again.
"It’s going to be like Pujols hit .285 and 30 homers. They say it’s a bad year for him," Rodney said Tuesday.
"You’re going to see that same Fernando Rodney physically and mentally. I’m going to try," he added. "If something similar happens to what happened last year, that’s great. I’m going to work hard and do my best, and we’ll see what happens. … But I’m not going to guarantee anything."
The hard-throwing right-hander allowed one earned run over his final 45 appearances to join Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley as the only pitchers to finish with at least 40 saves and an ERA below 1.00 in a season. Rodney’s 0.20 ERA after June 15 enabled him to break Eckersley’s season record (0.61 in 1990) for a reliever working a minimum of 50 innings.
Not bad at all for a guy who at this time last year wasn’t expected to fill the team’s ninth-inning role.
Rodney signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent after two subpar seasons with the Angels, and manager Joe Maddon entered spring training last winter trying to figure out where the newcomer fit into the bullpen.
When Kyle Farnsworth began the season on the disabled list with an elbow strain, Rodney took advantage of an opportunity to close games again.
"Kyle pretty much was going to be the closer and Fernando, we were trying to get him back on his feet, working back into it, talking to him in meetings about picking out the optimal spot to put him in the seventh or the eighth inning, and if the opportunity came up to finish a game he would get that opportunity," Maddon said.
"That was the conversation last year at this time, not the best ERA in the history of baseball and that many saves and nailing it down the way he did," Maddon added. "Retrospectively, it’s kind of incredible, actually, coming off the previous couple of years in Anaheim. And how he did it — he was so dominant."
And a major bargain for the budget-minded Rays.
Rodney had a base salary of $1.75 million last year and earned $300,000 in bonuses based on games finished. The deal he signed as a free agent last winter included a club option for 2013 at $2.5 million that the Rays exercised.
The reliever would like a new contract, however he said Tuesday that he is not pushing the Rays for one.
"Maybe this year, I’ll get it," Rodney said, adding that he’s focused on preparing for the season. He’s also looking forward to playing for the Dominican Republic in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.
"It’s a great moment when you have a chance to represent your country," Rodney said, adding that he’s not concerned about overexerting himself after pitching four innings in winter ball in his native country and working another four innings in the Caribbean Series.
Rodney noted there are pitch-count limits for participants in the WBC.
"It’s like spring training. You have only so many pitches you can throw. … If you’re ready to go and you feel good, go. If you’re not sure and you’ve got to make a decision if you’re ready to pitch, that’s not good. I feel ready to go," Rodney said. "Maybe I’ll face hitters I never seen before. Maybe I’ll see them in the league (later), and I’ll know how to face them. Maybe it will work like that."
Maddon is comfortable with his closer’s decision to play in the WBC.
"The fact that they don’t play every day helps," the manager said, adding that Rodney also has a good idea of how much works he needs overall this spring to prepare for the challenge of picking up where the reliever left off in 2012.
"It’s going to be nearly impossible to repeat what he did, and I really don’t want him to think that way," Maddon said. "I want him to just go out and pitch … and I think he can be pretty close."