Tigers want K-Rod to see high-leverage spots

Tigers want K-Rod to see high-leverage spots

KANSAS CITY -- Francisco Rodriguez's exile from high-leverage relief pitching has gone on long enough. The Tigers want to figure out if he still has something to provide with the game on the line.

That was part of the motivation behind the former closer's seventh-inning appearance on Monday with the Tigers holding a one-run lead and the middle of the Royals' batting order coming up. It's a situation that could come up again soon.

"Normally, guys like him are more effective when the game's on the line," Ausmus said after a 10-7 win. "He has always pitched like that, and I think we have to find out if he can pitch with the game on the line, quite frankly."

On the surface, Rodriguez's appearance on Monday looked at first like a matter of necessity. Once Daniel Norris left after five innings and 96 pitches, the bullpen had 12 outs to cover, all but requiring at least four relievers. Once Blaine Hardy and Shane Greene pitched the sixth, the Tigers needed somebody besides Alex Wilson and Justin Wilson to cover some outs.

That was Rodriguez, who looked good against the Rangers in a couple of previous appearances, but he hadn't pitched in a week and a half.

"We were going to need someone to get through it," Ausmus said, "but to be honest with you, I was probably going to use Frankie today in that situation anyway. I wasn't forced by that. Even if Greene gets through that inning, Frankie throws the following inning anyway."

Once Rodriguez took the mound in the seventh, he had his first close game in regulation innings since back-to-back blown saves in Oakland. Two batters later, he no longer had a lead, losing Lorenzo Cain to a leadoff walk in a nine-pitch battle before giving up an opposite-field home run to Eric Hosmer. In both cases, fastball command cost Rodriguez; his changeup actually looked slower and more deceptive, though he struggled to get swings and misses with it.

Rodriguez retired the Royals after the homer, keeping the Tigers close enough to rally for Rodriguez's first victory since April 7. Still, his outing was not a success, and the Tigers are no closer in confidence that Rodriguez can resume a late-inning role, which was the stated end goal behind moving him to lower-leverage situations.

Rodriguez is earning about $6 million this year, but two big factors weighing into the club's decision with him are non-financial. First, unlike Anibal Sanchez, Rodriguez is difficult to bury at the back of a bullpen because he cannot eat innings. Simply pitching him an inning in lopsided games doesn't help rest other relievers much.

Second, Rodriguez remains an incredible presence in the clubhouse as a leader and mentor for fellow Tigers pitchers, relievers and starters.

"I don't know if it's complicated, but you get a good understanding of why we want him part of it, because he is huge down there," Ausmus said on Tuesday. "He's the leader of the bullpen. He has been since he stepped foot into the Tiger clubhouse. The guy's an unbelievable professional, does things the right way, very unselfish. He's without question the guy everyone else looks to for a steadying, influential mentor. And he speaks both languages, so he can lead both groups."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.