Rodriguez gives Detroit’s defense a day off with dazzling start

Detroit Tigers

CLEVELAND — The best praise for a dominant pitcher often doesn’t come from the pitcher himself, but from the hitter who has to face him, or the catcher who has to catch him.

The way Eduardo Rodriguez is rolling, however, the best view might come from the center fielder.

Riley Greene established himself as a Tigers pitcher’s best friend last year with a highlight reel of diving catches and home-run robberies. He is the captain of the outfield defense — he entered Wednesday’s 5-0 win over the Guardians tied for most putouts by a Tigers outfielder, and fifth among AL center fielders. The way Rodriguez is overmatching hitters these days, Greene’s defense is rarely needed.

As Rodriguez silenced Cleveland hitters with eight strikeouts over seven scoreless innings, Greene was a spectator with one of the best seats in the house, standing in the middle of a quiet outfield. Rodriguez allowed just four singles, three of them infield grounders. The first, a Tyler Freeman chopper that bounced off second baseman Zach McKinstry’s glove and rolled into shallow center, was the only ball Greene touched during Rodriguez’s outing. His lone putout was a Steven Kwan line drive off Jason Foley to begin the eighth.

“It’s incredible,” Greene said. “He’s not missing his spots. When he’s on the mound, it’s just a different presence there. And we know when he’s on the mound, ‘All right, let’s go.’”

Except that when Rodriguez is pitching, Greene rarely has to go far. A corner outfielder not getting a play is a little more common; a team can stack left- or right-handed hitters in a lineup for a pitcher and focus on pulling the ball. A center fielder not getting a ball is abnormal. Yet, the way Rodriguez keeps pitching, it keeps happening.

“I mean, I like it,” Greene said, “Because I”m not moving around. Just being able to watch him pitch, seeing where his ball’s going, seeing how it’s moving, he’s really good. He’s on, he’s hitting his spots. And that’s why he is who he is.”

Rodriguez has allowed one run on 15 hits over 35 2/3 innings in his last five starts. Greene has made four putouts on seven total chances in those games. By comparison, he has four or more putouts in seven games this season.

Wednesday’s inactivity was even more impressive considering how many fastballs Rodriguez threw. Taking the mound with a 2-0 lead thanks to Greene’s RBI groundout and an Andy Ibáñez RBI double, Rodriguez threw fastballs on all 11 of his first-inning pitches, striking out the contact-hitting Steven Kwan and red-hot Amed Rosario coming off a four-hit game. Jose Ramirez flied out to left to end the inning, then Rodriguez went to work with his secondary arsenal.

Rodriguez’s only hiccup was the fourth inning, when back-to-back two-out walks and an infield single loaded the bases. Just when he seemed vulnerable, he toyed with Mike Zunino, slowing him down with a first-pitch changeup, spotting back-to-back fastballs at the top of the zone, then getting a called third strike on the inside edge.

Add in Rodriguez’s six innings of one-run ball April 12 in Toronto, and the lefty has six consecutive starts of five innings or more with one run or fewer, the longest such streak by a Tiger since Michael Fulmer’s AL Rookie of the Year campaign in 2016. Only Justin Verlander has a longer streak in Tigers history, going seven such starts in a row during his AL MVP season in 2011. Rodriguez will have a chance to tie that next week, likely against the Pirates at Comerica Park.

“Just keep going out there and post zeroes,” said Rodriguez, whose 1.57 ERA is second-lowest among American League starters. “I don’t think about how many games I’ve been pitching good. Just go out there and keep doing it.”

The Tigers are off on Thursday, having finished a 4-2 road trip. Greene might as well have had an early start, the way Rodriguez was rolling. And yet, because he’s pitching that well, he doesn’t dare let his concentration wander.

“No,” he smiled. “Because if a ball’s hit to you, you want to make the play for him, because he’s busting his [tail] on the mound.”

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