Francisco Rodriguez was recently sorting the boxes that he had shipped to Milwaukee following his July trade from the Mets. He stumbled upon videos from his 2002 rookie season with the Angels, when he was an unknown mid-September call-up and, with all of 5 2/3 major league innings under his belt, became the team's primary October setup man on the way to a World Series title. In that postseason Rodriguez had a 1.93 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings, earning himself the nickname K-Rod. "I couldn't believe it's been almost 10 years," he says. "I was like, Wow, I was a baby right there. Twenty years old. Those are good memories."
Much has changed since then—he became an elite closer and has 291 career saves—yet nearly a decade later K-Rod again finds himself deep in the playoffs, pitching in a setup role. "The only difference," says Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, who was the third base coach for the '02 Angels, "is that, at that time, I looked at Frankie as the setup [man], but now I look at him as a closer. We're just fortunate that we have two closers."
Before Rodriguez was acquired for two players to be named later—the Mets dumped their closer before he could reach a games-finished incentive that would have triggered a $17.5 million option for next season—the Brewers' bullpen had a 4.00 ERA. After Rodriguez assumed an eighth-inning role in front of incumbent closer John Axford on July 16, the pen had a 2.21 ERA. In the club's first six postseason games the group allowed only four earned runs in 20 1/3 innings; Rodriguez hadn't allowed a run in three outings, with six strikeouts in three innings of work.
The turnaround isn't entirely attributable to K-Rod: Veteran righthander Takashi Saito, who missed most of the first half with hamstring and oblique strains, preceded Rodriguez's arrival in the bullpen by two weeks and had a 1.66 ERA in the second half. But K-Rod has been stellar, with a 1.86 ERA in 29 innings for the Brewers. All but two of those innings came in the eighth, forcing him to tangle often with the opponent's best hitters. There are several variables that affect how a lineup turns over in any given game, but overall an eighth-inning pitcher is more likely to match up with the heart of the opponent's order than the closer is in the ninth. "We joke about that all the time," says Milwaukee reliever LaTroy Hawkins. "It's amazing how it ends up like that."
After his trade to the Brewers, Rodriguez most commonly faced the opponent's two-three-four hitters. While closing for the Mets this season, he most frequently opposed the five-six-seven spots. While he did gripe to reporters last month about not getting save opportunities, he now understands that he's doing valuable work. "They brought me in with that purpose," he says, "to shorten the game and take some of the pressure off the guys that were here."
His arrival also settled Milwaukee's relievers into well-defined roles: With the eight and ninth innings accounted for, Roenicke can deploy Hawkins, Saito and righty Kameron Loe in the sixth and seventh innings. "Having defined roles in the bullpen is huge for getting your mind right," Loe says. "It takes an emotional toll whenever that phone rings. I don't care who you are, your heart jumps a little bit, but when you know who it's ringing for, that definitely helps."