West Palm Beach, Fla. — That blue and gold Venezuela baseball jersey, with all the colorful trim, looked awfully sharp on Eduardo Rodriguez.
But no better than he and his Tigers garb looked Sunday in his first start back from this month’s World Baseball Classic drama.
Rodriguez, a left-handed artist who pitches with power and with a certain elegance when all is right, was back with his regular employers Sunday, working 4.2 innings for the Tigers in what turned into a 2-1, walk-off victory for the Nationals at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
Rodriguez was quite good: four hits, two of which were ground balls over or off the third-base bag; one walk; five strikeouts.
Precision stuff, lots of it, before he approached his 80-pitch limit.
“Couldn’t have asked for more,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “Very efficient. He was exactly what we wanted today.”
Rodriguez had just driven north on I-95 following Saturday night’s fireworks at Miami where the United States and Trey Turner grand-slammed their way to a late victory that ousted Venezuela from the tournament.
Rodriguez checked into West Palm Beach realizing he has one, maybe two more, starts before he and the Tigers cruise into St. Petersburg for the regular season’s start, March 30, against the Rays.
There was no STATCAST data-tracking Sunday, although Rodriguez didn’t need satellites to confirm he had a lovely mix of fastballs and sliders in his 70-some-pitch outing. His change-up wasn’t “perfect” as it was, he said, in one of his latter starts for Venezuela.
But no dissatisfaction Sunday.
“Right where I wanted,” he said of his fastball that in his and others’ estimation was probably in the 94-95 range. “My fastball command feels great. Just working on location.
“I feel ready to go,” said the man who missed so much time in 2022, a product of marital issues that have given way to greater peace in March. “I feel strong and ready for the season.”
“I was more proud of his pitch usage,” the Tigers skipper said. “Throwing breaking balls today, a few front-door fastballs. He was pretty sharp.
“There’s a lot to deal with (for hitters) when he’s at his best — how he cuts the ball. Change-up, slider, four-seam up. He can be masterful when he uses his pitches the right way.”
The Tigers and Nationals had, well, the usual smorgasbord of celebrity and farm-team help in Sunday’s lineups.
Detroit’s only run came in the first when Kerry Carpenter hooked a hard double into right field. Spencer Torkelson, who figures out a way to keep hitting after some earlier tough luck, stayed on an off-speed pitch and stroked a RBI single to right-center.
Torkelson in his next at-bat ripped a single to center, giving him two of the Tigers’ six hits Sunday. Torkelson is now slashing .300 in Grapefruit League games.
That was it for Tigers scoring, although the wind on this gray and chilly afternoon had some say there. In the fourth, Eric Haase creamed a Chad Kuhl fastball that looked as if it was headed for a grassy berm beyond the 406-foot center-field wall.
No go as it slammed into the breeze and into Victor Robles’ glove, 400 feet away.
Rodriguez’s act was followed nicely by his Tigers bullpen buddies:
Tyler Holton tossed 1.1 innings, not allowing a hit or a walk and striking out one. Miguel Del Pozo (one inning, no hits, walk and a strikeout) and Miguel Diaz (one inning, no hits, one walk, two whiffs) kept it clean through eight innings as the Tigers got ready for a long ride home on the Florida Turnpike and a 1-0 pelt on the wall.
Then, the ninth. Aneurys Zabala and his 100-mph fastball arrived.
A leadoff double wasn’t ideal. Nor was a follow-up booted ball by shortstop and longtime Tigers farm-hand Corey Jones. A walk, a strikeout, another walk, and another strikeout and it was 1-1 ahead of a second error by Jones that sent the Nats home with a spring kill.
The Tigers headed for the Turnpike. Included in their travel troupe was a lefty starter who pleased himself no more than he did a manager who knows how different Rodriguez’s story can be in 2023.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.
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