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New reliever Fernando Rodney the key to Tampa Bay Rays' early success

Fernando Rodney, who appeared to be a forgotten man in the Angels’ pen last season, has saved seven of the Rays’ 15 wins.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Fernando Rodney, who appeared to be a forgotten man in the Angels’ pen last season, has saved seven of the Rays’ 15 wins.

ST. PETERSBURG — These days, success tilts to the left.

Victory? For the Rays, it is somewhere off the port side bow.

Fernando Rodney pitches, and it seems as if his head is about to take a left turn toward Pisa. His cap sits crooked on his head, the brim pointing toward the on-deck circle. It gives Rodney a slightly askew, slightly cartoonish appearance, as if his skull is forever throwing curveballs.

Ah, but if you glance beneath the bill of Rodney's cap and into his grave digger's eyes, the smiling will stop.

There, you will find the reason for Tampa Bay's impressive first month.

It is there in the glare, in that slightly ticked-off appearance of Rodney's twisted features, that you can find the biggest reason for the early success of the Rays. You cannot talk about the team's fast start without first discussing Rodney's strong finishes.

Consider:

• The Rays have won 15 games this season, and Rodney has saved seven of them … in seven chances.

• Counting Monday night's scoreless inning in a 12-inning victory over Seattle, he has pitched in 12 games, and the Rays have won 11 of them.

• For the season, opponents are hitting .158 against him, and his ERA is 0.87.

Do you know who Rodney looks like on the mound? He looks like Jules Winnfield, the Bible-quoting killer played by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. No one in fiction has ever been cooler while being more lethal.

Ask teammate J.P. Howell, who says Rodney's glare "is about 20 times" more intimidating than former Ray Rafael Soriano. If you remember, Soriano's on-the-mound stare was almost as intense as the one he used whenever he was asked to pitch in a nonsave situation.

"They tell me I look like a lion that is hungry," said Rodney, who was born in the Dominican Republic. "I don't feel angry out there. I am just trying to do my job."

To tell the truth, Rodney is having a blast. Who wouldn't, considering the way the Angels threw him away last year? Through May of last year, Rodney had 25 appearances. After that, he had 14, only two in the final 29 games.

For all of the talent the Rays have found over the years in the discount bin, the best thing they seem to do is find relief pitchers in need of second chances. In Tampa Bay, Rodney has again become a force.

"They told me if I liked to pitch a lot, this was a place for me," said Rodney, 35. "I feel like I am home."

In the House of Rodney, all hats point left. They have since he tugged it that direction back in 2002 when he was playing winter ball.

"The only chance of Rodney wearing his hat straight is if there is a stiff wind when he's here (in mid delivery)," said teammate Luke Scott. "As soon as the pitch was over, he would put it back."

Of course, if all it took was a crooked cap to get hitters out, then Flavor Flav would be Cy Young. Rodney also has a nice fastball, a devastating change and the mental toughness to survive the ninth inning without unraveling when things go wrong.

"He brings that little bit of crazy you need on the mound in the ninth inning," said teammate Ben Zobrist.

Also, did anyone mention his changeup? It's so fierce that when Rays manager Joe Maddon talks about him, he invokes Looney Tunes.

"He has this delivery where he looks like the Tasmanian Devil," Maddon said. "Then he throws the ball, and it's like Bugs Bunny."

You've seen the old cartoon where Bugs takes this big windup, and the ball stops, and it darts, and it stops, and it darts, and eventually, it gets to the catcher and the batter swings three times at the same pitch.

"You've got to try to hit the fastball, because that other thing (the change) is stupid. You don't go up there looking for the other thing."

For the Rays, Rodney is the Other Thing. There are a lot of reasons the Rays won 15 games in their first month. The top three starters are 11-1. The team is 9-1 at home. The team is fifth in the league in runs scored. Because of it, they have survived a stretch in which 19 of their first 22 games were against teams that were .500 or better.

For a month, however, the biggest difference has been Rodney. Every time he throws, that tilted cap looks a little big cooler.

"I want to make mine more caddywompus," Maddon said. "I want to be more like him."

At this rate, who doesn't? The way things are going, the guy with the crooked cap might lead the Rays straight to the post-season.

New reliever Fernando Rodney the key to Tampa Bay Rays' early success 04/30/12 [Last modified: Monday, April 30, 2012 11:33pm]
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