TEMPE, Ariz. -- There is nothing like the ninth inning. The stakes, the adrenaline, the intensity levels on the field and in the crowd all serve to captivate Fernando Rodney. "I like when I come in the game in the ninth, that situation," the Angels' veteran reliever said before a morning workout at Tempe Diablo Stadium. "I like the moment, the feeling on the mound, the excitement in the park. I'm focused and pumped. Something changes. "Some guys don't like it. I like it."
His career numbers support Rodney's words as he goes about the business of planting his personal stamp on the closer's role in 2011. In 204 career appearances in the ninth, he owns a 3.59 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a .237 batting average and a .683 OPS (on-base plus slugging). In 167 eighth-inning forays across his eight seasons -- seven in Detroit, one in Anaheim -- his ERA jumps to 5.16, while opponents bat .243 with a .750 OPS. In 47 appearances in the seventh inning, his ERA is 4.66 with a .286 BA and .751 OPS. "I pitch great when I know I have to come in and get one inning," Rodney said. "I've got my command right, my mechanics right. That's the way I feel. I like to come in every day like that." Angels manager Mike Scioscia has made it clear that Rodney, in the wake of Brian Fuentes' departure, is his first choice to close. But Scioscia points to other options -- veterans Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi, young guns Kevin Jepsen, Jordan Walden, Michael Kohn -- should Rodney falter. "We have guys capable of pitching at the back end of games," Scioscia said, "and Fernando is going to be one of them. "If he does what he did in the first half of last season, when he was lights out, then our bullpen will line up the way we need it to. If there are things we need to adjust from, we will. "We have some power arms from the right side and some balance on the left. Any one of five guys has the ability to get the last out of a game." Asked if he expects to seize the job, Rodney was noncommittal. "I'm not sure," he said. "I have to show this guy I'm ready for that. Then they make the decision. I'm ready to compete." This, Rodney adds, is nothing new. "In this game, you have to prove it all the time -- every time you come in a game," he said. While Rodney didn't inspire confidence in fans with an uneven performance in 2010, he has a track record as an effective closer. With the Tigers in 2009, he led the Majors in save percentage, nailing down 37 of 38 opportunities. Filling in for Fuentes when the lefty was down early last season, Rodney was close to perfect, retiring 15 of 16 men he faced in claiming five saves. But his inability to stay in the strike zone became his downfall late in the season, and he finished with 14 saves in 21 chances. If that Rodney resurfaces, falling behind in counts and putting himself in jams, Scioscia will explore those other avenues. "I don't know," Rodney said when asked if he could put a finger on what went wrong during two rough stretches -- in July and in the final month -- that undermined his season. "Some days were great, other days I don't know what's going on. I remember . That's what I want to do." Yielding nine earned runs and 28 baserunners in his final 14 1/3 innings, Rodney watched his season ERA settle at 4.24 in 72 games and 68 innings. In July, he lost command and surrendered nine earned runs in 10 1/3 innings. He finished with 53 strikeouts and 35 walks. His splits offered a glimpse into his preparation and focus. With no runners on base, opponents batted .306. With men in scoring position, the number fell to .233. With two outs and runners at second and/or third, the other side batted an anemic .196. What this data suggests is Rodney's competitive juices flow when he's in trouble, but he needs to bring more concentration to working with the bases clear. It also explains why his ninth-inning numbers are so much better than when he pitches the eighth and seventh. Last year, he had a 4.09 ERA and yielded a .248 BA and .681 OPS in the ninth, compared to .277 and .793, respectively, in the eighth with a 4.37 ERA. He still brings mid-90s heat with a two-seamer and one of the best changeups in the game. His slider could evolve into another weapon. "That would give them one more thing to think about," he said, grinning. Rodney, who calls the Dominican Republic resort town of Samana home, keeps the clubhouse loose with his free spirit. He'll be 34 on March 18 and is completing a two-year contract. He knows this is a pivotal year. When pulses pound in the ninth inning, Rodney would love to recreate a little old-fashioned Fernandomania at Angel Stadium for the great Fernando Valenzuela's old catcher, Scioscia.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.