The Brewers beat the Braves 2-0 on Opening Day in Milwaukee, and when the bullpen doors opened in the ninth inning, it wasn't Jim Henderson who jogged out, but Francisco Rodriguez. As it turns out, that will be the case for the foreseeable future. Concerned about the quality of Henderson's pitches this spring, the Brewers made it official after Rodriguez picked up the save on Monday: K-Rod is the closer, at least for now.
"We had a conversation about Henderson yesterday," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said after the game, "and until we feel like he's throwing the way he can and was last year, we're going to put him in a role that we can give him a couple outings to get his stuff back and his confidence going."
In nine one-inning appearances this spring, Henderson gave up nine hits, six runs, and walked five, but also allowed just one home run, struck out seven, and finished March with four straight scoreless outings in which he allowed just one hit and two walks. Still, his velocity was down, and the Brewers didn't think his slider was where it needed to be.
This is the second consecutive season in which the Brewers have switched closers in the season's first week. Last year, incumbent closer John Axford blew a save on opening day, got lit up two days later, and never got another ninth-inning save opportunity with the Brewers before being traded to the Cardinals in late August. Henderson, then a 30-year-old rookie who had pitched well in the second half of 2012, immediately assumed the role and converted 28 of 32 save chances over the remainder of the season despite missing two weeks due to a hamstring strain.
Henderson may yet regain the role, but Rodriguez, who is just 10 months older, is certainly capable of running with this opportunity and adding to his career total of 305 saves. Ironically, it was Axford for whom Rodriguez was acquired to set up at the 2011 trading deadline, a situation that was assumed to be a temporary arrangement given Rodriguez's track record as a closer and impending free agency. However, Rodriguez surprised everyone that December by accepting arbitration and signing on for another year as Axford's set-up man. A free agent again the next winter, Rodriguez found the market for his services lacking due to his poor 2012 performance and a September arrest on domestic violence charges. Rodriguez remained unsigned past Opening Day, but after Axford's early struggles, the Brewers signed Rodriguez once again. Rodriguez dominated for the Brewers in early 2013, converting all 10 of his save chances and posting a minuscule 1.09 ERA, but was traded to Baltimore in late July. Again a free agent in the offseason, Rodriguez signed with the Brewers for a third time in early February.
Now, the player who was supposed to be a two-month patch in the bullpen in late 2011 is the team's Opening Day closer in 2014. With 30 more appearances, Rodriguez will have pitched in as many games for the Brewers as he did for the Mets, and he has pitched as well or better for Milwaukee than he did for New York, thus far posting a 129 ERA+ for both teams with a lower WHIP and higher strikeout-to-walk ratio for the Brewers despite their less-pitcher-friendly home stadium, doing so for roughly half the price. Incidentally, don't feel bad if you didn't realize the Brewers had made this change. Apparently not even Rodriguez's teammates were aware. Aramis Ramirez, whose two-run double accounted for all of the scoring in the Brewers' Opening Day win, was as surprised to see Rodriguez come out of the bullpen in the ninth inning as you were. "I didn't know what was going on there," Ramirez said after the game. Now he does.