Friday night, in his first action in Nationals Park since the first week of July, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez got a pinch hit appearance late in the game against the Atlanta Braves and received a somewhat unexpected and overwhelming ovation from the home crowd. In what could be Rodriguez's last home game in a Washington Nationals uniform on Saturday, the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer catcher helped right-hander Chien-Ming Wang to one of his strongest starts of the season.
In the eighth inning of a 4-1 game, with the Braves fighting for a playoff spot and threatening with runners on first and third and one out, the veteran of twenty-one major league seasons made what his manager called the play of the game, throwing out Michael Bourn for just the 13th time in 71 attempts by the speedy baserunner this season. It was Pudge Rodriguez's 13th caught stealing of the season in 25 attempts against (52% CS%). Nats' reliever Tyler Clippard, who was struggling, then concentrated on Martin Prado and popped him up to end the threat and the top of the inning.
"That was the play of the game," Davey Johnson said once it was over, "I understand them running, that's not a second guess. I'd be running too. You want to stay out of the double play and ideally you want to get Chipper [Jones] and a couple of guys on base." The caught stealing killed the rally and settled Clippard down in a game the Nationals would go on to win. The Nationals' manager was impressed with what he saw from the future Hall of Fame catcher.
"I looked at him," Johnson said, "and he was bouncing around like a 19-year-old. In total command of the game. It was fun to watch. Any time there a little something he didn't like going on with the pitcher he was right out there. He's one of the best there ever was." Asked if he had contemplated removing Rodriguez from the game so the fans could show their appreciation for what the catcher has meant to this organization, Davey Johnson said, "No. I wanted him to be in the game. As a player, you don't want to come out of the game, you want to be the last one to leave, shake hands with everybody."
Rodriguez was there at the end, embracing Nats' closer Drew Storen after the 24-year-old had recorded his 41st save of the season. Will Pudge be in a Nationals uniform next year? The veteran backstop wants 3,000 hits, and seems to think he still has a few seasons left in him. He collected hit no. 2,843 on Saturday, but has only 26 hits in 43 games this season. In two years with Washington, Rodriguez has a .254/.290/.341 slash with 25 doubles and six HR's in 154 games and 555 plate appearances.
Before Saturday's game, Davey Johnson talked a little about the situation behind the plate and what Pudge Rodriguez has brought to the organization on and off the field. "He's just an outstanding baseman man. I love his opinion of pitchers. Anything, anything on the game of baseball, he's a special person and a special athlete."
Rodriguez has accepted his reduced role with the team which Johnson said, "... is a great asset. He's been a good mentor for the young catchers," Johnson continued, "... [and] this is one of the solid catching corps in all of baseball, from top to bottom in the organization. But he understood the situation. I explained it to him, '[Jesus Flores] has had an injury for two years and even though you're going to be healthy and come back, I'd like to give this youngster a chance to come back,' and he understood that and he was very supportive of that and he's just a true professional."
With 24-year-old Wilson Ramos firmly established as the Nats' number one catcher, and the 26-year-old Flores serving as his backup for a good portion of the season, what role Pudge Rodriguez could play next year is up in the air. What Flores has accomplished this season, according to Johnson, has been "... a good stepping stone for him to come back and be the kind of catcher that everybody knows he is and can be." In the manager's mind Jesus Flores is, "... an outstanding big league catcher," and, "I think he showed a lot of that in his performance up here this year backing up Ramos," Davey Johnson continued. Where does Pudge Rodriguez fit in?
The offense isn't there any more but the defense, and the knowledge he can pass on has been important for pitchers, catchers and everyone in the organization. Will Pudge be back? That's a question the Nationals will have to answer this winter. What has Pudge Rodriguez meant to this organization? The DC Faithful in Nats Park this weekend let Pudge know.