ST. PETERSBURG — Sad as they are, do not judge him by his statistics. Forgettable as they may be, do not measure him by his moments.
When it comes to Fernando Rodney, you judge him by the night shivers you feel as he is on his way to the mound.
It was 9:50 when Rodney began his slow shuffle from the bullpen on Wednesday night. To his right was anxiety. To his left was apprehension.
Time and again, it has happened. The ninth inning comes, and Rodney along with it, and just like that, your temples throb and your palms sweat and something furry starts gnawing inside the pit of your stomach. It is Rodney Time, and once again, you wonder if your nerves can stand it.
And so for the 39th time, the Rays turned a lead over to Rodney. Be honest: How did you feel as he approached the mound?
No matter. This time, he made it stand up. Fifteen pitches, and he went through Erick Aybar and Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton. Why, it was as easy as a man turning off a light, which, if you think about it, is the job description.
For Rodney, this was one of the quickest, cleanest outings of the year, especially when you consider it came 14 hours after Rodney hacked up a fur ball against the Angels on Tuesday night. In that time period, he rallied himself, and he got over the disaster, and he rebounded. There is something to say in that.
Ah, and there is something to say about the sad song this season has been. He has walked too many batters and given up too many hits and turned too many leads into defeats. His ERA is more than six times what it was a year ago.
So, yeah. If you want to know the reaction to Rodney in too many games this year, it is this: Uh-oh.
A year ago, there was no finer sight in baseball than Rodney's cockeyed cap walking toward the mound. He was the gravedigger, and he was there to bury another foe. He was the grim reaper on his way to slam the door. He was baseball's best closer, and when he entered a game, you felt as if it was over. Rodney blew only two saves all season.
Currently, Rodney is trying to break out of his second slump of the season. Before Wednesday, he had blown three saves in his last six opportunities. His eight blown saves are second most in the league. A 6-3 lead wasn't big enough against the Dodgers and a 3-1 lead wasn't big enough against the Yankees and a 5-4 lead wasn't big enough against the Angels.
"I know people look at me different because of last year," Rodney said. "What I do last year, I don't think you're going to do it again. Maybe someone can. I think this year, this is me. That's normal me. Today, I came out and did my job. Last night, I walked the first batter. I didn't want to do that this time."
It is a high-wire job, closer. The only thing that matters is to strangle off the last chance of the other team. But chasing one's own success can be hard. Look at the Orioles' Jim Johnson, who was excellent a year ago. This year, he is the only pitcher in the American League who has more blown saves (nine) than Rodney.
In all, it has been a baffling, uneven year for Rodney. He struggled early, blowing five saves through the end of May. He rallied to earn 18 straight saves (of his 31). And now, at the worst time possible, Rodney is sputtering again. Given that there are 31 games to play, it is incumbent on the Rays to bring Rodney out of another funk. Now.
"I haven't lost confidence in him," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "For us to go to the World Series this year, we have to stay with him. Early in the year, that was a real funk. I don't see this as being nearly as bad as that one."
At the time, some of us called for the Rays to find another closer. But Maddon and his staff straightened out Rodney another way. For several games, they spot-pitched him, seeking out favorable matchups until Rodney felt at home. "Target practice," Maddon called it. And it worked. Rodney was unbeaten during June and July with a 2.04 ERA.
Still, Rodney seemed a little removed from the domination he had last year. For one thing, he seems to have only a fraction of his command of a year ago, when he seemed able to locate his fastball wherever he wanted, when he could get the bottom to drop off his changeup at any point he wished.
Consider this: In 76 appearances, which featured 48 saves, Rodney had only 10 innings of more than 20 pitches. He didn't have a 30-pitch inning.
This year? In 58 appearances, Rodney has 21 innings of 20 pitches or more and five of more than 30 pitches. So far, he has walked 33 batters, more than twice last year's 15. The longer an inning goes, the more bad things can happen. A dropped popup, for instance. In each of his eight blown saves, Rodney has walked at least one batter. That's flirting with trouble.
"I think he's fine," Maddon said. "One, I think he's healthy. Two, he has a short memory. And three, I know how much this matters to him. Now it's for us, and for me, to show confidence in him. Without that, he really can't come back."
At this point, it is too late for alternatives. The Rays will swim with their closer, or they will sink along with him. He will be good in this race, or they will be gone from it. Now, more than ever, it is up to Rodney to save the Rays.
"I know my job," Rodney said.
Soon, he will walk toward the mound again.
How will you feel then?