Zuckerman: Pudge Joins Exclusive HR Club

Zuckerman: Pudge Joins Exclusive HR Club
August 3, 2010, 6:35 pm
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Tuesday, August 3, 2010 2:34pm

By Mark Zuckerman

PHOENIX --The ball sat in Ivan Rodriguezs locker at Chase Field, ready to be presented to the man who helped foster one of the greatest catching careers in baseball history.

After clubbing his 300th home run as a catcher, Pudge could think of only one worthy recipient: His father, Jose Rodriguez, who has attended many Washington Nationals games this season and was in the crowd Monday night when his son reached this latest milestone.

It took me a long time, said Rodriguez, who hadnt homered since May 16. But its always special to have my dad here.

As if Rodriguez needed any more accomplishments to solidify his lofty standing in baseball lore, he gave Hall of Fame voters yet another reason to include him on their ballots by becoming only the fifth catcher in history to hit 300 or more home runs. The previous four (Mike Piazza, Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra) already are enshrined in Cooperstown or are sure to wind up there in the near future.

When you can say in this game you are one of five people to do something -- and this game has been played a long time -- its pretty special, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said.

There was a time in Rodriguezs career when 300 home runs seemed a foregone conclusion and perhaps hed make a run at 400. From 1996-2004, he averaged 22 homers per season, not to mention a .318 batting average and 33 doubles.

His power numbers, though, have steadily declined since then. And with only two homers so far this season despite regular playing time, hes on pace for his lowest total since his rookie season in 1991 (when he only had 280 at-bats).

Rodriguez, 38, believes pitchers have approached him differently in recent years, forcing him to go with what they give him. He remains a good contact hitter, one who looks more for doubles these days than home runs.

I never considered myself as a home run hitter, he said. I consider myself a gap hitter: Hit the ball hard, line drives in the gap. Basically, thats what Ive been doing for my whole career.

At this stage of his career, Rodriguez also struggles to sustain offensive success over the course of a full year. He came out of the chute on fire in his first season with the Nationals, hitting .393 with nine doubles over his first 25 games and leading the National League in hitting. But hes tailed off dramatically since then; over his last 49 games, hes batting a meager .205 with a .230 on-base percentage and .273 slugging percentage.

Signed with Washington for another season at 3 million, Rodriguez remains 218 hits from becoming the first catcher in baseball history with 3,000 hits. Considering hes likely to receive less playing time in 2011 as the Nationals try to ease recently acquired catcher Wilson Ramos into an everyday role, Pudge may have a tough time achieving his next major milestone.

Those who have played alongside him, though, dont doubt his ability or desire to keep going until hes accomplished everything he wants in this game.

Hes not done yet, first baseman Adam Dunn said. Hes one of the top catchers to ever play the game.

Mark Zuckerman covered the Nationals for The Washington Times from 2005-09. In addition to regular work this season for CSNwashington.com, he also covers the team at www.natsinsider.com. Email Mark at zuckerman12@gmail.com.