Friday, April 8, 2011, 7:40 p.m.
Updated at 9:38 p.m.
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By Mark Zuckerman
NEW YORK -- Ivan Rodriguez's opportunities to make meaningful contributions to the Washington Nationals are waning. He won't say that, but you get the sense the 39-year-old catcher understands the situation. The Nationals want to start transitioning rookie Wilson Ramos into a leading role, which means Rodriguez is about to be phased out.
That doesn't mean Pudge can't still contribute in some manner to the Nationals' success and development. Indeed, he played a significant role in Friday's 6-2 victory over the New York Mets, both at and behind the plate.
With a two-run single in the eighth inning, Rodriguez gave his team some breathing room after most of the evening had been a nip-and-tuck affair. And with his deft game-calling abilities, he guided starter Jordan Zimmermann and five relievers through an impressive performance.
Was Pudge the star of this game? No. Zimmermann, who allowed two runs over 5 13 innings and also delivered a clutch, two-run single, had the biggest impact on the outcome of this one. So did relievers Doug Slaten, Chad Gaudin and Tyler Clippard, who collectively escaped delicate jams in the sixth and seventh innings when Washington led only 3-2.
But Rodriguez was right there with all those pitchers, helping them navigate their way through it all.
He helped coax four strikeouts from Zimmermann through the game's first seven batters, then helped the young right-hander last into the sixth inning and approach the 100-pitch mark for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery 20 months ago.
"The more innings he gets at this level, the better he's going to be," Rodriguez said. "He's got tremendous ability to be a great pitcher. ... When you have a pitcher that young that can be around the strike zone that much, he's going to be good."
Rodriguez knows Zimmermann has a deep arsenal, highlighted by his mid-90s fastball and sharp-breaking slider. And since those two pitches were so effective Friday, there was hardly any reason to call for Zimmermann's still-effective changeup (he threw only two).
"That's how good he is," Rodriguez said. "He's got another pitch on him that we can use, that we didn't use today. And he still did a tremendous job. He's going to be good."
Pudge's game-calling skills also came into play during those tense moments in the sixth and seventh innings, when the Mets were threatening to tie or take the lead for the first time. With a runner on third and one out, he guided Slaten through a six-pitch encounter against Mets first baseman Ike Davis, getting a huge punch-out on a 3-2 slider on the outside corner. Moments later, he framed a 1-2 fastball from Gaudin on the corner to catch Scott Hairston looking and end the inning.
Then, perhaps the biggest at-bat of the day. With runners on second and third and one out in the seventh, manager Jim Riggleman summoned Clippard to face Jose Reyes. The situation called for a strikeout, and Clippard has been one of baseball's best relievers at getting batters to swing and miss. Pudge knew what was needed.
"I was thinking strikeout with Reyes, yes," he said. "In that situation, you have to. You have to work him to try to strike out him."
Rodriguez called for a first-pitch change-up, and Clippard got Reyes to swing and miss. Reyes fouled off a pair of fastballs, then took a change-up for a ball. With the count 1-2, Pudge went right back to the change-up, and Clippard got Reyes to whiff at it again.
"The way he pitched Reyes was unbelievable," Rodriguez said. "Those two or three change-ups we threw to him were nasty."
Clippard then got ahead of Angel Pagan in the count 0-2 and induced a weak comebacker to end the inning and snuff out the Mets' rally. The right-hander has now stranded seven runners in scoring position in five appearances this season.
"That's my role," Clippard said. "That's been my role the last two years here. I know what I'm expected to do. And I'm just trying to fill that role and do my job. So far, so good."
After all that, the Nationals still were clinging to a 3-2 lead. They immediately got an opportunity to tack on some runs, though, when they loaded the bases with one out in the eighth. The only problem: Rodriguez, who to that point was 0-for-12 this season and had hit two weak grounders to the right side of the infield earlier in the game, was due up.
A less-accomplished player might start pressing in that situation, especially one who knows his playing time is about to dwindle. Rodriguez, owner of 2,817 career hits, doesn't worry.
"No, that's baseball," he said. "I know I'm going to get my hits. That's baseball. You cannot be frustrated. Why am I going to be frustrated in this part of my career? I'm a hard worker. I know I'm going to hit."
Sure enough, Pudge calmly stuck out his bat on a 1-1 fastball from Bobby Parnell and found a hole on the right side of the infield. Two runs scored. The Nationals led 5-2 and were well on their way to victory.
Afterward, Rodriguez sat at his locker and held court for several minutes. The first week of his 21st big-league season hasn't been especially memorable, and there are likely to be more unmemorable days ahead.
But on this evening, the old catcher showed he still has something left in the tank. And he showed he can still contribute to a much-needed victory.Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.