K-Rod promises to bring the heat

K-Rod promises to bring the heat

NEW YORK -- Not that it's an excuse, because there's little reason to excuse success, but Francisco Rodriguez claims he knows precisely why his fastball has lost a little zip. It was an experiment, he says, the byproduct of a strange new pitch. And it began, like so many baseball experiments begin, in Spring Training.

Rodriguez was, for reasons tied more to curiosity than necessity, developing a changeup. And as any changeup artist knows -- perhaps countryman Johan Santana might have dropped a helpful hint -- the key to the pitch is a consistent delivery. Yet not long into his experiment, K-Rod realized that the harder he threw his fastball, the more difficult it was to keep his changeup delivery consistent.

So Rodriguez dropped his velocity, consistently throwing his mid-90s fastball in the low 90s instead. He threw more changeups than ever before. And he enjoyed the most statistically eye-popping season of his career, producing a Major League-record 62 saves with a 2.24 ERA.

However, now that the season is over, now that questions regarding his velocity have been posed, examined and ignored, now that his agent has publicly defended the velocity drop through a similar explanation, Rodriguez swears that his old fastball will return. He has mastered the changeup, he says, to the point that delivery is no longer an issue. And he will pitch in the mid-90s again, on a regular basis, under the lights of Citi Field.

"You guys are going to see it next year," Rodriguez said. "You guys are going to see that the velocity is going to be there."

Most Mets fans will be happy just to see him. The first piece in a bullpen makeover that has already seen the Mets add J.J. Putz and Sean Green, and subtract Aaron Heilman and Scott Schoeneweis, Rodriguez also comes attached with some heavy expectations. He is the heir to Billy Wagner, a man expected not only to step into the closer's role, but to succeed there in ways that even Wagner could not.

He is the man the Mets wanted most this offseason, and whom they acquired for the price of three years and $37 million. He is "the man they call K-Rod," as general manager Omar Minaya introduced him at a news conference in Las Vegas this week. And he is a man who is going to be prepared.

"I'm going to work a lot harder and come back a lot stronger than I've ever been," Rodriguez said.

He's already even prepared for the rivalry. Two days after Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels called the Mets "choke artists," Rodriguez on Saturday afternoon called his new club the "team to beat," echoing the words of outfielder Carlos Beltran last spring and Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins before him. And he spared little shame in doing so.

"I'm a really competitive guy," Rodriguez said. "I like to win, of course, and if they ask me who's the ballclub that's going to win the National League East? It's going to be the Mets. Easy question."

He may discover that such proclamations often carry more weight on the East Coast, where words are sometimes dissected and reconstructed beyond recognition. And he may also soon discover that, as prepared as he is for such a change, his expectations might ultimately differ from his experiences.

Because right now, all he has are expectations.

"There might be a little more adrenaline because it's the Mets, in New York," Rodriguez said. "The atmosphere's a totally different environment. In Anaheim, they're more calm, they're really relaxed when they're watching a game. Mets fans, they make a lot of noise. And I try to feed off the crowd."

Perhaps he is used to that, in a sense. Rodriguez, speaking on a conference call from his native Venezuela, has already experienced a bit of it since touring Citi Field and returning home to Caracas. There's a certain national pride, it seems, that comes along with having arguably Venezuela's top two baseball players, Rodriguez and Santana, on the same team.

Hot Stove
So Rodriguez couldn't have been too surprised when his countrymen began stopping him in the mall and at the grocery store this week, offering congratulations and relaying expectations.

"It may put a little bit of pressure on me, because you want to do so well so they can enjoy us," Rodriguez said. "Everyone knows how good a pitcher Johan is -- he's one of the best. Everyone in New York knows now what he's capable of doing."

Many know Rodriguez's capabilities, as well. Those who don't should soon find out. The city of New York, in fact, should soon find out -- and vice versa, of course.

"Not to disrespect other cities, but New York is really different," Rodriguez said, spoken almost like a lifelong New Yorker. "The fans are really passionate. A lot of players like to be on that stage. I'm the kind of guy that likes to be on the big stage. I'm the kind of guy that likes to be involved in the pressure."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.