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So far, so good for the Fernando Rodney Experience in Washington

So far, so good for the Fernando Rodney Experience in Washington

BALTIMORE -- Stories about Fernando Rodney are believable because they include Fernando Rodney, owner of The Lucky Plantain, dancer, reliever, impressionist, baseball’s oldest active player.

Was he once locked in the bullpen bathroom at Oakland Coliseum for two innings, almost missing a save opportunity? Maybe. Someone had heard that. They were going to ask. Did he once try to convince a coach to let him fly to the Dominican Republic for a single off-day? Probably, because, why not? Does he bark at teammates? Yes. Confirmed. Multiple times over.

All of these things -- the mystery, light-heartedness, 17 years as a reliever -- come together with his pitching to form what’s become known as the FRE: Fernando Rodney Experience. 

Rodney is 42 years old. He expected to pitch this year, but not for the Nationals. Season 17 started in Oakland. It did not go well. Rodney did not pitch often, he walked almost as many as he struck out and the A’s let him go May 28. Six days later he signed with the Nationals.

They needed to talk first. Manager Davey Martinez asked Rodney what was wrong in Oakland. They knew each other from Rodney’s 2012 peak in Tampa Bay, when Rodney put together a devastating season: 0.60 ERA, 48 saves, 76 strikeouts, 15 walks, 43 hits allowed, 641 ERA-plus (for a comparison point, Mariano River’s best single-season ERA-plus was 316). So, Martinez was aware of what Rodney could do at his best. The question was what could he do now? Was he finally burned up after all these years? Rodney threw his 16,000th major league pitch this season. What could be left in there?

Martinez knew if Rodney had anything near his career normal (3.84 ERA), the Nationals had a space for him. He explained pitching irregularly in Oakland was the culprit. Martinez told him lack of frequency would not be an issue in Washington. So, Rodney packed for Fresno.

Rodney was back on a major-league mound less than three weeks later. Martinez immediately began using him in high-leverage situations in the eighth or ninth inning. And, Rodney looked like himself: nothing easy, nothing stressful (for him), a changeup that travels like a river bends and a mid-90s fastball. He is prone to putting a runner on base. He is also as likely to get out of it. Such is his pitching life for almost 20 years.

“Kind of an erratic-type good pitcher,” Brian Dozier said. “He’s not always going to paint, paint, paint. Changeups are effective.”

This is not an insult. Martinez has mentioned Rodney’s propensity to allow baserunners and his big-league life proves it to be true. Rodney has allowed a hit or walk in 28.8 percent of his 920 big-league appearances. He has thrown 9,910 strikes and 6,172 balls, according to Fangraphs. The only thing typically easy about a Rodney appearance is his trip to the mound in the bullpen cart.

His fastball speed fluctuates -- on purpose. Last year in Minnesota, he began throwing a two-seam fastball more often to go with his four-seam fastball and changeup. Since joining Washington, Rodney has thrown 99 mph, stating afterward, “Sometimes you have to let the hitter know.”

That sentence made closer Sean Doolittle laugh out loud. “Love it,” he said. Dozier giggled, too. These are common reactions around Rodney.

Wednesday in Baltimore, he explained his view of marital challenges to Justin Miller (and a reporter). Who knows what portion of what was said is true, but he was having fun, Miller was laughing, so off he went.

Rodney has six children -- four boys, two girls (“lots of rice and beans,” he says) -- and uses as many voices when speaking. He doesn’t change tense, he changes the sound. Why? Why not?

“What I love [laughs], I love how he does a lot of different voices,” Dozier, who was also teammates with Rodney in Minnesota, said. “He’ll come in one day talking like somebody and spend the whole day talking like that. He’ll do these different voices all the time.

"Some people think he’s serious, but nothing’s really serious that he talks about. It’s so light. He’s an interesting cat. He’s an amazing teammate. What I love about him in that regard is, he’ll pitch six days in a row if you allow him to.” 

Rodney’s regular voice is deep and he is husky. His new teammates have been impressed by his power in the weight room, and those who did not know him prior weren’t sure about his approachability because he is a stern physical figure at 5-foot-11, 240 pounds. Any concern quickly melts when Rodney starts to joke in Spanish or is walking to left field at Citizens Bank Park shimmying to K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “My Boogie Shoes”, a dance routine which ends with him hopping into the air for a final kick. This is not someone here to menace.

Why so much fun? Why not? Rodney has made nearly $50 million living the volatile life of a major-league reliever. It beats the hard work his father put in fighting the elements as a fisherman in the Dominican Republic. As the sun rotated during the day, so did his hat, starting a natural-born trend his son carried into the major leagues. Rodney also thinks the askew lid makes a runner on first think he is looking that way when he is not. So, there’s that, too.

He feels well. The years haven’t dampened his spirit or fastball much. Maybe one more in the major leagues, he thinks. Then off to Miami with the kids. They like to play baseball in the Dominican Republic and Rodney is ready to be an out-of-the-ordinary shuttle service. 

“I think that’s a blessing,” he said.

For now, his 2.84 ERA in early work for the Nationals has him occupied. Rodney can be seen daily with a neon green ball about the size of a softball. He throws it off the outfield wall to help his grip of a normal-sized baseball be “more powerful.” He’s advised Wander Suero on his changeup. The veteran relievers have crossed paths with him somewhere along the line. They respect his work.

He could have stopped. But, he loves baseball. He loves pitching. Rodney debuted May 4, 2002. For him, there has been nothing else. Not yet.

“I feel today like 29,” Rodney said. “Feel good. My body feel good. A lot of rice and beans. A lot of fish. A lot of meat. Milk. Over medium eggs.”

Then he laughed, because why not?

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Sleep-deprived Nationals win one they probably shouldn’t have in Chicago behind Aníbal Sánchez

Sleep-deprived Nationals win one they probably shouldn’t have in Chicago behind Aníbal Sánchez

The clubhouse wears have never been packed so quickly. Washington was sprinting as a group to get out of Pittsburgh on Thursday night following another three-hour-plus game with a 1:20 p.m. local start looming in Wrigley Field on Friday.

Max Scherzer finished his postgame comments in less than four minutes, then quickly moved to get cleaned up and join the others. Most lockers were vacant by the time media members reached the clubhouse, which wasn’t long after the game ended. 

Despite the scramble for minutes saved, Friday was supposed to be a loss. Las Vegas knew. The players and management knew. It was a bad spot. Night game, onto a plane, then a day game against a team which played at home the previous afternoon, and was 44-19 there -- the second-best home record in the National League. 

And yet, Nationals 9, Cubs 3, and it wasn’t that close.

Some bloops fell, some situations turned out lucky. Though, Aníbal Sánchez dominated. No voodoo or charms were involved.

He went through 8 ⅓ innings before being removed after 112 pitches. He was provided a shot to finish the game -- just 15 National League pitchers have a complete game this season -- but couldn’t. A rare Anthony Rendon throwing error cost him an out, then his opportunity for a solo close to the afternoon in Chicago.

Sánchez threw 31 four-seam fastballs, 31 cutters and 28 “splitters” among his 112 pitches. He worked as a marionettist, pulling strings to change positions and outcomes throughout the day. Matt Grace finished the game. No high-end reliever was used, resetting a bullpen which had to cover five innings in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

The offense beat up Jon Lester. He didn’t make it out of the fifth inning. Everyone in the lineup -- including Sánchez -- picked up a hit. Trea Turner’s single extended his on-base streak to 30 games.

Sánchez’s work piggybacked on what the other starters did against woeful Pittsburgh. Nationals starters have allowed two earned runs in the first five games of this seven-game road trip. The offense has averaged 8.2 runs in that span. It’s hard to fathom they lost once with both sides operating in such fashion.

All of this is just a continuation of a massive turnaround. Washington is 52-26 since its nadir May 24. Only the Dodgers -- who host the Yankees on Friday night -- have a better record in that span, and by just a half-game. They have won 10 of 12 and 13 of 17. Fivethirtyeight.com now gives the Nationals a 90 percent chance to make the postseason (this includes the wild-card game).

Wins like Friday emphatically move that needle. The Cubs are trying to wind their way into the postseason. They were also set up for a clear advantage thanks to the schedule. Instead, Sánchez, throwing as slow as 68 mph and as fast as 91, controlled the day, the offense rolled through the afternoon and everyone was ready for bed after a surprise win.

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Nationals players on the stressful process of choosing a nickname for Players' Weekend

Nationals players on the stressful process of choosing a nickname for Players' Weekend

Zimm, Brown Eye and T3 will all take the field against the Cubs in the annual Players' Weekend series August 23-25.

Some Nationals players got creative when choosing nicknames, and others (yes you, Javy Guerra aka Javy) could use some inspiration. 

Other nicknames just made sense.

Fernando Rodney's nickname, "La Flecha", translates from Spanish to "the arrow". If you had the opportunity to watch the Fernando Rodney experience, you know that he celebrates a save by shooting an imaginary bow and arrow to the sky. 

He described the routine just like pitching: "you know where it is going exactly, you got a good shot."

When asked if he had any other nickname ideas he joked that he thought about using "Plátano Power". A joke dating back to 2017. 

Patrick Corbin is using his Players' Weekend jersey to honor his late friend and Angels pitcher, Tyler Skaggs. His nickname will say "Forty Five", Skaggs' number which Corbin wore days after his death. 

Other nicknames were no brainers, almost decided for the players. 

Wander Suero will go by "The Animal", the nickname given to him in the minor leagues that stuck with him. One of his coaches, Donald Ray "Spin" Williams, would tell him all the time, "you're an animal" because of the way he hustled. It caught on with his teammates and Spin still calls him that. 

Sean Doolittle's nickname was teased for a long time, Obi Sean. His Star Wars-themed bobblehead was a giveaway earlier in the season, featured the relief pitcher as Obi-Wan Kenobi from the popular franchise. The nickname is also his Twitter name though no one calls him that.

Doolittle has changed his nickname for the past three years. "It gives you an opportunity to show a little personality and have some fun with it." He said he can show that he is "a Star Wars nerd." 

These nicknames are chosen in Spring Training, and Doolittle remembers this happening early in the morning. "It's 6 or 7 am and they are walking around the clubhouse with a clipboard asking what you want your players weekend nickname to be at the end of August." He joked, "it's not the most creative time, you're not really awake yet." 

Tanner Rainey was one of those players who may not have been awake yet. When asked if he would answer a few questions about his nickname he laughed and said, "I don't even know my nickname." (For those wondering, it's Rainman).

He said he never really had a nickname but a few guys started calling him Rainman.

"If there's not one I would have went with Rainey on the back of the jersey," he said.

This choice is not because he doesn't like the idea. Rather, he is just focused on baseball during Spring Training.

"Alright that's in late August, this is February," said Rainey. "Let's worry about tomorrow first." 

Doolittle had the perfect way to describe making such an important decision.  "You know-how like the month leading up to Halloween you are like 'I have no idea what I want to dress up as.' You scramble for a costume and you're like 'yeah this works, whatever, at least I dressed up'. That day and the week after it feels like you have all these great ideas and you are like 'aw I should write these down'." 

"So maybe I will do that this year," Doolittle joked. "Maybe I need to start a notes app on my phone."

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