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Change is good for Tampa Bay Rays All-Star reliever Fernando Rodney

CLEVELAND

So much of the Fernando Rodney story is about being different.

The cap tilted to the side. The imaginary arrows he shoots after each save. The dances, strange voices and occasional bird sounds he does to liven up the clubhouse.

And yet he is an All-Star for the first time because of one thing that never changes.

Rodney heads to Kansas City tonight primarily due to his amazing ability to make the delivery of his fastball and changeup look exactly the same.

The deception created by the similarity in release, combined with an extraordinary differential in velocity and an uncanny downward break at the end, has made his changeup one of the game's most lethal weapons.

"I've seen some great ones — Trevor Hoffman, (Greg) Maddux and (Mike) Mussina," ESPN analyst and 171-game winner Rick Sutcliffe said. "And this is right there."

Rodney, 35, adopted the changeup somewhat out of desperation in 2002. He was sent back to Double A after his first big-league stint in Detroit with orders to develop a pitch to complement his blazing fastball.

He'd played around with the changeup before but started throwing it regularly against a wall and to his Erie roommate, Jose Ramirez, then eventually in games as he developed into a reliable reliever for the Tigers.

"It's been working ever since," Rodney said.

But never this well …

As if the 24 saves in 25 chances this season entering Saturday aren't impressive enough, consider how he has gotten there. In 372/3 innings over 39 games, Rodney had allowed six runs (four earned) for a 0.96 ERA. He had allowed a baserunner in only 17 of his appearances, 22 hits for a .167 average, and five walks compared to 38 strikeouts. The one homer he had allowed, to Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia, resulted in his only blown save.

How does he do it?

The changeup success begins with command of his fastball, the one significant improvement Rodney has made from last season, forcing hitters to be committed and ready early.

The first key is the consistency in delivery, making the changeup look like the fastball by throwing it with virtually the same arm speed. Next is the contrast — among the largest in the game — between his fastball, which has averaged 95.6 mph, and changeup, which averages 82.2, creating a paralyzing moment for hitters who guess wrong. (Most pitchers with high-end fastballs have a differential of 6 to 8 mph.) Finally, the finish: The changeup, in the last 10 to 15 feet before the plate, drops from 4 to as many as 16 inches.

"I'm surprised, to tell you the truth, whenever anybody puts the bat on one of them," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "Because this is not just a changeup."

Deceiving appearance

Rodney has a somewhat menacing look, furthered by the crooked cap, postgame antics and overall cockiness — "a little big of swag," as Rays manager Joe Maddon calls it — that contribute to making hitters uncomfortable. New teammates weren't sure what to expect.

But it didn't take the Rays long to find out why Tigers manager Jim Leyland still raves about what a great person, in addition to pitcher, Rodney is: "I loved him."

"I think people probably get the wrong impression of Fernando just because of the hat and those things," Hickey said. "But he's one of the nicest guys and one of the best teammates I've been around. … He cares about everybody else just as much as he does himself. He's been a real pleasant surprise for me in terms of a person."

Teammates are one thing. Family is another, and when Rodney got word of his All-Star selection, he was emotional thinking about them.

His wife, Helen, and his four kids, ranging from 1½ months to 11, will be with him in Kansas City. His mother, Idalia, two brothers and two sisters will watch from their native Dominican Republic.

But the person he wants to share the experience with most won't be there: his father, Ulise, who died of cancer April 28, 2002, six days before Rodney made his major-league debut for the Tigers.

"This is going to be for my dad," Rodney said. "I'd like him to be here with me. We were good friends. We did everything together."

In tribute, the back of Rodney's jersey for Monday's All-Star workout reads simply ULISE.

Fun and games

Rodney has been wearing his hat turned a little to the left since he got to the majors, another nod to Ulise as a symbolism of "the joy" they shared.

Shooting the arrow after the final out — and huddling with first baseman Carlos Peña to discuss where it went — was an addition this season to celebrate a job well done. (Never mind that he has never used a real bow and arrow.)

"A lot of closers do a lot of things out there," Rodney said. "I thought, let me do something different. It's different, and it's working good. I'm gonna keep it."

Unless he's told otherwise, he'll carry on the same way in Kansas City.

Latest resurrection

Impressing Leyland with his toughness, fearlessness and savvy, Rodney became a key reliever for the Tigers, topped by a 2009 season in which he saved 37 games.

Then he signed with the Angels for $11 million for two years and became a mess.

For whatever reason — role, workload, personality conflict and health have been suggested — it didn't work in Anaheim. Rodney didn't pitch well (7-8, 17 saves, 4.32 ERA in 111 games), then didn't get to pitch much (13 appearances after a mid-2011 disabled list stint).

"Fernando has the ability," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Even talking with Joe (Maddon), we always felt he had the ability to do what he's doing now. The frustrating thing is we were not able to get him where we needed him to be."

The Rays, typically, seized upon the possibility of a low-risk, high-upside deal, identifying Rodney as a prime candidate for resurrection.

They didn't offer much money — $1.75 million this year, a $2.5 million team option for next — but pitched opportunity and an impressive track record with other castoff relievers, such as Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano.

Rodney welcomed the chance, then impressed them by showing up in Port Charlotte saying he'd pitch in whatever role the Rays wanted. He took quickly to spring suggestions that improved his fastball command. And when Kyle Farnsworth went on the disabled list just before opening day, Rodney quickly and quietly stepped in, appreciative of the confidence the Rays showed, notching a win and three saves in the first five games.

"I think probably the biggest factor in him doing well, apart from the fact that he's really, really talented, is that he's extremely comfortable here," Hickey said.

AL All-Star and Texas manager Ron Washington said it's obvious Rodney likes the spotlight, "and when he comes out in the spotlight, he shines." Leyland said he's amused that people are surprised by Rodney's success.

"We thought he was ripe for a good year," Maddon said. "I think it's a combination of him feeling good about himself and liking it here, and maybe some nice physical and mental adjustments, and all of a sudden, you've got an All-Star."

Now, that's something different.

>>FAST FACTS

Changing up

Fernando Rodney's changeup is the key to his success. Here are some reasons why:

His avg. fastball speed:

95.6 mph

His avg. changeup speed: 82.2 mph

Avg. differential: 3.4 mph

Break on his changeup:

4-16 inches

Source: Fangraphs.com, Rays

Change is good for Tampa Bay Rays All-Star reliever Fernando Rodney 07/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 7, 2012 8:41pm]
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