There is no player on the Twins who has turned his season around faster than new closer Fernando Rodney.
When the Twins signed Rodney to a one-year, $4.5 million contract with a club option for 2019, many people wondered if the 41-year-old was the right addition to a young bullpen.
Early in the season, the move didn’t look good. Rodney gave up seven runs (five earned) over 6⅔ innings in his first eight appearances. That was good for a 6.75 ERA, a 1-2 record and three blown saves.
But after that rough start, Rodney has been dominant.
His past 10 appearances have been as effective a stretch as any closer has had in Minnesota. He has allowed no runs and only two hits over 10 innings with seven strikeouts and five walks. Opponents are hitting only .065 off him in that stretch, with the Twins going 9-1 in those games.
When asked what turned his season around, Rodney said it was being patient and knowing his pitches work.
“I use the same [pitches], I don’t try to change anything because I know that soon it’s going to be better,” he said. “Early in the season, I had a lot of hanging fastballs, high, but now I’m trying to hit the corners of both sides of the plate, inside and outside, and throw the changeup the same.”
Another big difference for Rodney has been the Twins’ improved defense. During that rough first eight games, opponents had a .455 batting average on balls put in play against Rodney. In his most recent 10 appearances, that number has dropped to .083. Now when balls are being hit off Rodney, the defense is turning them into outs, such as the leaping catch from Eddie Rosario to end Monday’s victory over Detroit.
“These guys save a lot of runs,” Rodney said. “It’s a good defense. When you have that guy in center field [Byron Buxton], you know you can throw a fastball down the middle and he’s going to catch anything he can.”
This weekend Rodney will return to Seattle, where his career nearly ended in 2015.
The Mariners are one of nine clubs Rodney has pitched for in his 16-year career. In 2014, he led the AL with 48 saves and was an All-Star at Target Field with Seattle, but in 2015, he struggled mightily with a 5.68 ERA, 16 saves and six blown saves in 54 appearances.
The Mariners designated Rodney for assignment and before he could be released, he was traded to the Cubs. In Chicago he proceeded to post a 0.75 ERA over 12 innings.
Today he is the active leader in saves with 310, which ranks 23rd in baseball history. He has a good chance to climb as high as 15th this season, currently held by Francisco Cordero with 329.
Does he like entering the game in difficult save situations?
“It’s something I like to do. I love that situation,” he said. “I love to come in the game when the game is on the line. I like the crowd yelling to me, they give me more energy.
“That’s what I want. That’s what I like. I like when the game is a tough situation. I feel comfortable and more relaxed.”
When it comes to his longevity, Rodney has sought advice from some of the best closers in history about how to stay competitive.
“I talked to a lot of veteran guys like Jose Mesa, a closer for Cleveland in the ’90s, a big guy, 6-4, Dominican,” he said. “I talked to [former Yankees closer and career saves leader] Mariano [Rivera]. I talked to [Trevor] Hoffman [No. 2 in career saves] a couple years ago in San Diego. These guys gave me an idea of what I had to do sometimes in these situations.”
Journey to Minnesota
Rodney pitched for the Tigers, Angels, Rays, Mariners, Cubs, Padres, Marlins and Diamondbacks before coming to Minnesota.
He said he has really enjoyed being with the Twins, similar to his time with Tampa Bay and San Diego. He said what drew him here was that the Twins wanted a closer who could also serve as a mentor.
“They looked for a guy to help the young guys in the bullpen and in save situations, I can be a big part of that bullpen,” he said. “That’s why I think I’m here — to help the young guys, because they have a lot of good arms in this locker room right now. They want to learn how to control the game and learn this game a little bit more.”
When Rodney arrived, he didn’t know he’d be throwing to a familiar face in catcher Bobby Wilson, who was with Rodney on the Angels in 2010 and 2011.
“[The Twins catchers] know how to call pitches,” Rodney said. “They know the scoreboard and if we want to throw the fastball or start with a changeup. They know if a guy is going to jump on the first pitch and if I want to throw the changeup. They know that. We talk before I go to the mound and we talk about the game plan.”
Rodney said he thinks he has more baseball left in him after this season.
“I feel good. I’m in good shape,” he said. “I have a lot of energy. I love this game.”
Gophers to be young
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck has talked all along that his second season with the team would feature a young roster.
Fleck has said it would take a number of years to build depth in the program. And if you want evidence of that, consider that the Gophers will feature only nine scholarship seniors — and only five of them have been big-time contributors so far.
Here’s a breakdown of those nine seniors, and what they have contributed to the team:
Rodney Smith has been the biggest contributor of the nine seniors. He will be the No. 1 running back with Shannon Brooks injured after rushing for 977 yards and three touchdowns last year.
Linebacker Blake Cashman has appeared in 38 games, including all 25 of the past two seasons, and recorded 79 career tackles.
Defensive back Jacob Huff also has appeared in all 25 games the past two seasons and had 65 tackles and three interceptions last year.
Julian Huff, Jacob’s brother and a linebacker, has 63 career tackles and 2½ sacks.
Antonio Shenault, a defensive back, was fourth on the team in tackles in 2017 with 64 despite missing two games because of a leg injury.
Gary Moore started five games on the defensive line last year and forced one fumble.
Donnell Greene will be the most experienced member of the offensive line, where he started 11 games last year.
Jerry Gibson missed most of the 2017 season because of an injury and played in three games on the defensive line.
Jared Weyler, who started six games at center last season but also missed six games, will be another big part of the offensive line.