E-Rod has a 0.52 ERA in past five starts for the Detroit Tigers. He’s still not satisfied.

Detroit Free Press

Eduardo Rodriguez threw his 1,000th strikeout in his eight-year career, pitched eight scoreless innings for the second time this season and stole the spotlight from three-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.

He is pitching better than ever before and looks like the ace of the Detroit Tigers.

“Location, location with everything,” Rodriguez said Thursday, when asked about the reason for his recent success. “That’s what has really been working for me. I feel like I’m able to throw every pitch right where I want it. That sort of thing has been working for me. Every pitch is right where I want it.”

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Rodriguez, 30, helped the Tigers (13-17) complete a three-game sweep of the New York Mets at Comerica Park, winning 2-0 in Thursday’s series finale after Riley Greene and Javier Báez hit back-to-back home runs off Verlander in the first inning.

With an early lead from the offense, Rodriguez fired eight scoreless innings with two hits, one walk and nine strikeouts. He retired the final 15 batters he faced and threw 70 of 102 pitches for strikes.

Manager A.J. Hinch embraced Rodriguez when he returned to the dugout after the eighth inning.

“Keep giving me that dilemma in the ninth inning,” Hinch told him.

They started laughing.

“As a starting pitcher, you always want to finish the game,” Rodriguez said. “You always want that no matter how many pitches you have. I knew he was taking me out of the game, so I was just laughing.”

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The banter between Hinch and Rodriguez is an example of the star pitcher’s off-field development last season. He spent two months on the unpaid restricted list for a personal matter and returned to the Tigers in mid-August in a better place mentally.

In 2023, Rodriguez is reaping the benefits of his time away.

“These guys are people first,” Hinch said, “and when things are settled at home, I see a different version of these guys than just the player on the field, whether it’s engagement in the clubhouse, interaction with teammates, the banter every time I take him out of the game. That stuff is the personality that can come out when you have freedom, when you have some life balance.”

And then, there’s the on-field performance.

In his past five starts, Rodriguez has a 0.52 ERA (two runs), four walks and 33 strikeouts across 34⅔ innings.

On April 23, he came seven outs away from throwing a perfect game against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards. He exited after the eighth inning for his first of two outings with eight scoreless innings.

“I’m good with eight (innings),” Rodriguez said. “You cover like 90% of the game, but if I got the opportunity to go nine, I will go nine. Seven innings every start is the goal for every starting pitcher. I’ve never thrown nine in my career, so I want to throw it so bad, so we’ll see.”

Rodriguez owns a 1.81 ERA with eight walks and 39 strikeouts across 44⅔ innings in seven starts this season. Back in 2019, he had the best full season of his career with the Boston Red Sox when he posted a 3.81 ERA with 75 walks and 213 strikeouts across 203⅓ innings in 34 starts.

That year, he tied for sixth in American League Cy Young voting.

“My vision is the same as when I was with Boston,” Rodriguez said. “I’m going to go out there and put zeros on the board. It’s the same mentality right now, go out there and put zeros. It’s working right now, so I got to keep going.”

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Considering the recent results, it feels like Rodriguez is destined to pitch a complete game at some point this season. Right now, the Tigers expect Rodriguez to complete at least six innings and probably complete seven innings.

In the same way, the Tigers feel confident they’re going win every time Rodriguez takes the mound.

“We just want a chance to win,” said catcher Jake Rogers, who threw out two runners trying to steal second base in Thursday’s win. “Keep the score as low as we can, and when Eduardo is doing this every week, it’s a little easier to win. You can score one or two (runs) and win. Can’t really beat it.”

Rodriguez, of course, has an opt-out clause (and a 10-team no-trade clause) coming up in the five-year, $77 million contract, which he signed in November 2021. He can leave the Tigers after the 2023 season and test free agency again, and based on his potential market value, he seems unlikely to stick around.

The Tigers have three choices: trade him, sign him to a contract extension, or let him walk.

For now, they’re just pleased the best pitcher in their organization is dealing.

“We just got to keep winning,” Rodriguez said.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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