K-Rod thankful for support of Scioscia

K-Rod thankful for support of Scioscia

ANAHEIM -- Francisco Rodriguez was young, gifted and, as he remembers it, "destroyed" mentally. In dire need of a strong shoulder to lean on, he found it in the formidable form of his manager, Mike Scioscia.

It was Game 2 of the 2002 American League Division Series. The Angels had dropped the opener at Yankee Stadium in disheartening fashion, the Bronx Bombers rallying from behind with a four-run eighth inning. Now a sixth-inning lead carved by starter Kevin Appier had gotten away with one swing of Alfonso Soriano's large bat.

The second baseman's two-run homer off the then-20-year-old Rodriguez -- not yet christened K-Rod -- had the Yankees nine outs away from seizing firm control of the series, with the great Mariano Rivera poised to drop the hammer.

"My first outing in the postseason," Rodriguez recalled, "and I gave up a home run to Soriano that gave the Yankees the lead. I had a blown save, and my confidence was really low. I was destroyed after that inning when I came to the dugout.

"I sat down, and my manager came over and said, 'Don't worry about it, go out there and put up a zero.' All of a sudden, my confidence was high again. That was what I needed."

After retiring Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams and Robin Ventura in the seventh, Rodriguez watched the Angels score three times in the eighth on consecutive homers by Garret Anderson and Troy Glaus and Adam Kennedy's sacrifice fly, delivering a young pinch-runner named Chone Figgins, who'd stolen second.

When Troy Percival got the final four outs, Rodriguez had his first Major League victory -- and the Angels were on their way.

"One decision can turn everything around," Rodriguez said. "No question about it. Mike didn't doubt me at all. He gave me confidence and the opportunity to go out and do the job. As a player, that's all you can ask for."

Six years later, just three happy endings away from erasing Bobby Thigpen's single-season saves record of 57, K-Rod looks back on that dugout scene with Scioscia as more than a career builder. It might, he thinks, have been a career saver.

"You never know what might have happened if he would have buried me then, lost confidence in me," Rodriguez said. "But he trusted me, believed in me. That meant everything to me."

He became K-Rod, the strikeout machine with the blazing heater and big curveball, as that postseason unfolded. Without a regular-season decision on his thin resume -- he'd logged 5 2/3 innings as a September callup -- Rodriguez got credit for five of the team's 11 wins during that magical October 2002 run.

Across 18 2/3 postseason innings in 11 appearances, he yielded four earned runs and walked five while striking out 28 batters.

A star was born.

Three years later, at 23, Rodriguez was handed the full-time closer's job vacated by Percival, one of his mentors. K-Rod has delivered more saves (187) than anybody in the game since the start of that 2005 season.

Scioscia's patience is widely perceived as one of his prime assets as a manager. As Rodriguez suggested, he values talent and gives it every chance to blossom without overreacting to bad games or stretches.

Whether it's a 20-year-old K-Rod with five games of September experience in the Major Leagues, or a young Jeff Mathis behind the plate, or unproven middle infielders Erick Aybar, Brandon Wood and Sean Rodriguez, Scioscia goes with his instincts. He identifies talent, nurtures it and turns it loose.

Asked to revisit that night in The Bronx when he stuck with his phenom after the Soriano homer, Scioscia acted as if it was a routine call on his part.

K-Rod -- Saved by an Angel

"When he gave up the homer to Soriano," Scioscia said, "Frankie was a kid that had shown not only that he had the stuff but the makeup to pitch in big games during the last month of the season for us [when he struck out 13 in 5 2/3 scoreless innings].

"As we got into the playoffs, we didn't know exactly where he was going to fit in. As the playoffs evolved, he was in the back of the bullpen. He came real quick."

What Scioscia remembers of Rodriguez's demeanor in the dugout after the Soriano blast is not the devastated young pitcher K-Rod described. The boss saw the determined look he has come to know so well.

"He came in real cool," Scioscia said. "If he was upset, he didn't show it. I just said, `Hey, way to turn it loose, kid. Go out and put up a zero for us.' After the home run, he pitched great."

And the rest is hysteria, Orange County style.

Having been around long enough to take the temperature of relievers as the Dodgers' catcher for a dramatic decade, Scioscia didn't see "anything extraordinary" in his handling of K-Rod that night.

"I know he's a 20-year-old kid pouring his heart into every pitch," Scioscia said. "At times, a Major League hitter is going to square you up; it doesn't matter who you are. It shouldn't keep any player from going out there and challenging hitters and competing. That's what we want any pitcher to do.

"With Francisco, we knew his stuff was going to play big time. We wanted him to stay aggressive and go after hitters."

That was the message Rodriguez recalls from Scioscia and pitching coach Bud Black, now managing the Padres.

"I was doing so good, they left me alone pretty much," Rodriguez said. "Every outing they'd come talk to me, see what I was doing wrong. But Black let me go. They gave me the confidence I needed to go out and let it go."

When it was time to replace Percival, the manager didn't hesitate to anoint K-Rod.

"He's never doubted me," Rodriguez said. "That means a lot to me. I really don't know how this would have turned out if Mike didn't have that confidence in me."

The man from Caracas, Venezuela, is fairly certain that moment in the Yankee Stadium dugout was the first major turning point in his career. When Scioscia came over and said, "Go back out and put up a zero for us," K-Rod responded.

He has been doing it ever since.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.