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Henry Rodriguez has blown three of his last six save opportunities.
"Is he still my closer? Yes, he's my closer," the Nationals manager said during his pregame media session, even though he wasn't directly asked the question. "He's been very successful at closing, in a job that's not that easy. As far as I'm concerned, he's been great. There's going to be a little growing pains."
Thrust into the ninth-inning role after both Drew Storen and Brad Lidge suffered injuries, Rodriguez was successful in his first five save opportunities this season. But beginning with a meltdown April 28 at Dodger Stadium and culminating with a walk-off grand slam surrendered to Joey Votto yesterday in Cincinnati, Rodriguez now finds himself in a funk.
Perhaps most disturbing about Rodriguez's recent performances has been a consistent pattern in which he looks shaky from the moment he takes the mound and has a tendency to bounce most of his sliders in the dirt.
Johnson, though, pointed to Rodriguez's inexperience in the role -- he was used in the ninth inning of a close game for the first time last September, successfully converting two save opportunities -- and the importance of staying patient with a young reliever.
"Here's a guy that just last year, I think he got his first save in the big leagues," the manager said. "And this year, he's been outstanding. He had an outstanding spring. I'm not going to answer these questions every time there's a little blip on the radar screen. Is he my closer? Yes, he's my closer. I have all the confidence in the world."
The Nationals figure to need Rodriguez for at least another month as both Storen (elbow) and Lidge (hernia) recover. Each right-hander has begun playing catch on flat ground, and Lidge is shooting for a mid-June return.
In the meantime, the veteran reliever is trying to offer as much moral support as he can, even though that wasn't possible Sunday as he watched Rodriguez's implosion from afar.
"It's real tough," Lidge said. "I was watching the game last night, and I was yelling at the TV sometimes. Just because I know how hard it is. Because we've all been there. Anyone who has pitched the ninth inning has been there. You just want to be able to yell out advice on the fly, but you can't do it."
And what did Lidge yell at the TV?
"Get the guys out before Votto gets up," he said with a laugh.