JUPITER, Fla. – It was the seventh inning of an early spring-training game against the Cardinals, with the Braves trailing 8-3 and lineups for both teams at that point filled with backups, prospects and minor leaguers.
But for Paco Rodriguez, it was extremely meaningful. And by extension it was for the Braves, because the left-hander could be a crucial piece of their bullpen in 2017.
Rodriguez, last pitched in a game more than 21 months ago, took a major step back in recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery when he pitched a perfect seventh inning Thursday, getting a strikeout – Eric Fryer, looking – and two groundouts. For the record, he was the only one of the 12 pitchers used by both teams to not give up at least one hit.
“I was a little nervous,” said Rodriguez, 25. “I was in the pen warming up and I was just, like, trying to slow down my heart rate, trying to breathe, just telling myself, hey, it’s just another day at the ballpark. Just had a blast going back at it, and I felt good. Everything (his pitches) was moving and had late action, so I was happy with how my outing went.”
So were the Braves and manager Brian Snitker.
“It’s great that a kid’s worked that hard to get back, and just to get out there and complete that inning – it seemed like probably nothing to people in the stands, but it’s a huge thing for a kid who’s went through all that he’s went through and as hard as he’s worked,” Snitker said. “To go out there and get through the inning, I’m happy for him.”
What’s next for Rodriguez?
“Just try to do the normal routine now,” Snitker said, “and if he keeps making his turn I would think things would just continue to build.”
The Braves have Ian Krol as the only returning lefty in their bullpen, and Krol wasn’t real effective against lefty batters for much of last season, allowing a .287 average and .721 OPS.
Rodriguez has a 2.53 ERA in 124 appearances over parts of four major league seasons for the Dodgers, and he’s held lefty hitters to a .174 average (29-for-167) and puny .478 OPS. He pitched in 18 games in 2015 during April and May, then went on the disabled list with a sore elbow and was traded to the Braves as part of the three-team deal that brought Hector Olivera to Atlanta.
The Braves thought he’d be ready to pitch later that season, but Rodriguez’s elbow didn’t improve and he had Tommy John surgery in September 2015. Since his last appearance with the Dodgers on May 29, 2015, the only batters Rodriguez faced before spring training began were several pro-ballplayer friends in two batting-practice sessions organized by Rodriguez near his home in Miami in late November.
“It’s been a long process,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a real game, being able to compete and having another team up there. So (Thursday) was fun. Fun to be back in the game.”
He made an adjustment in his pitching motion in order to eliminate a pronounced pause he previously had before coming forward. Rodriguez said it felt good Thursday, and he looked forward to watching videotape of his outing to see if everything was in order.
What he’s most looking forward to is being in the Braves bullpen when the season begins. Like a lot of veterans in the clubhouse, he believes this Braves team can surprise a lot of people who’ve picked them to finish fourth or fifth in the National League East after losing 188 games over the past two seasons.
“I think this is a great opportunity,” he said, “because we have a lot of young guys, a lot of guys that are hungry and want to compete and do it every single day. And then we have our veterans that are kind of leading us in that right direction, teaching the younger guys how to be professionals, and guys that have been around and done some damage.
“”So I think we have a lot of guys that want to prove themselves, and I think if you put that all together it’s going to be a very productive year. I’m hoping that we put it together and make a run for it. I think we have a really good chance to make a run.”