‘It’s really special’: Tigers tap lefty Eduardo Rodriguez for Opening Day start

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — There is a steeliness about Tigers ace Eduardo Rodriguez. It’s almost shark-like.

Ask him about pitching in the playoffs and he will tell you straight-up, “Just another game.”

Ask him about pitching in the World Series or the WBC, same answer: “Just another game.”

It’s genuine. It’s his method for staying focused and not letting the size of the stage or the brightness of the lights rattle him.

“That’s the way I think about it,” he said. “It’s just another game, and I just focus on doing my job. Just throw the ball where I want to, enjoy it and just play the game. I never think about it like, it’s ‘this’ game or it’s ‘that’ game. ‘We need this game.’ Nothing like that.

“I just think about doing my job.”

So, yes, when Rodriguez takes the mound in the Tigers’ season opener at Tampa next Thursday, it will be just another game. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not a special moment for him. It doesn’t mean he’s not honored to be chosen.

“No matter what team you play on, whenever you have the opportunity to be the Opening Day starter, it’s a huge thing,” he said. “They trust you to be the first guy on the mound for the first game. It’s really special.”

Talking to Rodriguez on Thursday morning, the day he was informed that he’d be the Tigers’ Opening Day starter for the second straight season, it was clear where his stoic mound presence comes from.

The man has had some legendary mentors.

He was reminiscing about his younger days, back in 2014, when he was 21 years old climbing up the ranks in the Baltimore Orioles’ system. He was invited to big-league camp for the first time where, much to his awe and delight, he got to share a clubhouse with his boyhood idol — Johan Santana.

“The number that I have (No. 57) is because of him,” Rodriguez said. “He is the most important pitcher in my country. He was there. We had a really good relationship. He’s my idol. That’s the guy I watched when I was a little kid when he was pitching for Minnesota.”

The Venezuelan countrymen and fellow lefty were at different stages of their careers then — Santana, in Orioles’ camp as a non-roster invitee, was at the end of his.  He suffered an Achilles tendon injury and never made it back to the big leagues. Rodriguez was just getting started.

“Funny story,” Rodriguez said. “He had one of the best changeups in baseball, and the Orioles tried to get him to teach me his changeup. But, after he watched me, my changeup was harder than his. He just told me to locate it.”

Santana taught Rodriguez a trick about locating pitches, too. Rodriguez was throwing one of his first bullpens of the spring and Santana was standing behind him. Rodriguez was moving the catcher’s target all around the plate, set-up outside, set-up inside and he was nibbling corners.

“Finally, he just grabbed the ball from me and said, ‘You want to learn something?’” Rodriguez said. “Throw the ball at the middle. Once you learn how to throw the ball in the middle, then you can start picking corners.”

Sage advice.

A couple of years later, when he was with the Red Sox, Rodriguez latched on to another mentor, this one with Hall of Fame credentials — Pedro Martinez.

“From Pedro, I learned toughness,” Rodriguez said. “Just trying to be a tough guy on the mound. Aggressiveness. Attack hitters. Don’t get caught up in situations; just attack and attack all the time.”

Luis Tiant was also a reference point for Rodriguez in Boston. He picked the brains of his contemporaries, too. Rick Porcello, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Sale.

“I took the time to talk to them every time they were in the ballpark or in the clubhouse,” Rodriguez said. “I took the time to talk to them about baseball or whatever. Those are the guys who taught me how to handle those (big-stage) situations.”

Rodriguez will turn 30 on April 7. He is in the second year of a $77 million contract with the Tigers, a contract he can opt out of after this season. He will tell you his internal motivation is to be the best pitcher he can be, especially coming off a broken season last year, when he left the team for two months to deal with marital issues.

Those issues are resolved, and he seems bent on re-establishing himself as one of the best left-handed starters in the game. He made a strong start in a victory for Venezuela in the WBC this spring, and with the Tigers he’s pitched 13 scoreless innings in his four starts, striking out 15 with just two walks.

“I told you guys — I put in a lot of work this offseason to be where I am now,” he said. “I feel happy the way my pitches are moving and the way my body feels and the way everything is in the right spot for the season.”

Whether that translates into the Tigers getting a good return and trading him to a contender at the deadline is something that is out of his control. In the meantime, Rodriguez seems genuinely comfortable and content, much more engaged with his Tigers’ teammates than he appeared last season, understandably.

When asked earlier in camp about the prospect of using the opt-out, Rodriguez said, “I just signed last year. I’m just going to go out there and keep working, keep playing baseball. I like the way Detroit handled everything, especially after what happened last year.

“I’m thankful to all of them. So, I don’t think anything about (opting out). I just go out there and play baseball.”

Twitter: @cmccosky

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