WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In a tuneup before his final tuneup, Eduardo Rodriguez looked as if he was ready for the regular season to begin tomorrow.
That’s good news for the Tigers, who have a lot of questions about their overall roster still to answer before camp breaks in about a week and a half, but few surrounding the rotation. The starting five is mostly, if not completely, set, and Rodriguez is a major reason why there is so much certainty in that one area of a still-evolving team.
On Sunday at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, with the wind blowing briskly from left field to right, Rodriguez wasted no time mowing through the Nationals’ lineup. In his first two innings, he froze four batters on called third strikes. He fell right into line with the pregame plan, which called for him to pitch into the fifth and hit a pitch count of somewhere in the mid-70s.
Done and done. Rodriguez, in his first start back after a brief two-inning stint with Team Venezuela at the World Baseball Classic, declared the outing a good one. It put him in line for where he needs to be ahead of Opening Day (which, presumably, he’ll start, though it has yet to be announced).
“I feel ready to go after today,” he said. “I got to 75 pitches. My body feels strong. That’s the right mindset to have. Go up there, execute the pitch. Today was perfect for that many pitches and the situations I had in the game.”
Rodriguez didn’t have to point out that his fastball was working for him — that was obvious by the number of batters he flummoxed in his first two innings. The lefty said he was pleased with his increased velocity in this outing and the one for Team Venezuela.
“It was just location for him,” manager A.J. Hinch said following the Tigers’ 2-1 loss to the Nats. “[Hitters] have a lot to deal with when he’s at his best. How he cuts the ball, whether it’s changeup, slider, four-seam up. He can be masterful whenever he uses his pitches the right way. That’s what led to the freeze fastball.”
Rodriguez worked through a couple of jams later in the outing, situations he later said he welcomed because they allowed him to ramp up his pitch count while forcing him to strategize how to minimize damage — just as he would during the regular season. Even so, he needed only 11 pitches in the fourth and 14 in the fifth before exiting with two outs.
“The high count — I feel like if you go out there and have a seven-pitch inning, nine-pitch inning, it’s just too easy,” he said. “You don’t get to see how you feel when you get to the tough situation, when you get to the pitch count. Today was perfect. It was the best example to know that I’m really strong for the season.”
Games are moving faster this spring, thanks to the pitch timer, but Rodriguez’s quick pace in this outing was more a function of what he’s always done, rather than what he has to adjust to. He was in full control of his own steady pace, which is nothing out of the norm for how it’s been most of his career.
“That’s how I work,” he said. “I like to go fast, get the ball and go to the next pitch. Just go out there, try to be quick, don’t let the hitter think too much. Attack. That’s my mindset all the time. That’s why the pitch clock doesn’t affect me at all.”
Rodriguez is on track to lead a rotation consisting of Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Michael Lorenzen and Matt Manning. Things can turn, as the Tigers experienced firsthand in 2022, when they cycled through 17 starting pitchers during the season. But where they are now seems to be a good starting point, especially with a strong Rodriguez perched at the top.
“I feel like we have a lot of depth and we have a lot of experience,” Hinch said. “That’s pretty comforting. I feel comfortable that we can roll out a good starting pitcher every night.”