ST. PETERSBURG -- Timing is everything. And where Fernando Rodney and the Rays were concerned, the timing proved to be impeccable for both parties.
Rodney got the chance he needed and produced one of the best-ever seasons by a relief pitcher and the Rays benefited greatly by giving him a chance.
The first personal rewards were realized Friday when Rodney was named both the American League Comeback Player of the Year and the Delivery Man of the Year.
The Comeback Player of the Year Award is given annually to one player in each league and is voted on by the 30 MLB.com beat reporters. The Delivery Man of the Year Award is voted on by a Major League Baseball panel and is given to the most outstanding reliever of the regular season.
Rodney, 35, signed a free-agent deal to join Tampa Bay on Jan. 4. The demand for the veteran right-hander wasn't exactly off the charts since his career appeared to be heading in the wrong direction.
Rodney had been a successful -- and overpowering -- closer for the Tigers, with his best season being 2009 when he saved 37 games. But he left Detroit and headed for the West Coast, signing with the Angels, who paid him $11 million for two seasons.
Unfortunately for Rodney and the Angels, he saved just 17 games in the 2010-11 seasons and pitched only 32 innings in 2011.
Rodney returned home to the Dominican Republic during the offseason looking for answers as to why his career had gone into such a tailspin. Pitching in winter ball allowed him to regain confidence and ultimately his effectiveness. All he needed was a chance.
"I worked hard in the offseason last year," Rodney said, "so I could get an opportunity to trust the stuff I have and be in the game."
Rays scouts liked what they saw, which led to the team signing him to a one-year deal that paid him $2 million with a club option for $2.5 million in 2013.
Rodney showed up at camp as bullpen insurance. But when Kyle Farnsworth, the Rays' closer in 2011, began the season on the disabled list, Rodney was given a shot to become the closer.
"It's something I did; I didn't have a plan to do this this year," Rodney said. "I had the opportunity to prove to [Rays manager Joe Maddon] that I can pitch at this level in this game. And it happened."
Rays fans fell in love with Rodney, who seemed to have fun when he took the mound with the bill of his cap turned slightly to the left. Whenever he recorded a save, or got the final out, he would turn toward center field and act like he had shot an arrow into the sky, then playfully watch the imaginary arrow's path.
The final game on the schedule proved to be a celebration of his superlative season when he entered the game against the Orioles with the Major League single-season record for the lowest ERA by a reliever, with at least 50 innings, at hand. Percentage points separated Rodney by a smidge over Dennis Eckersley's 0.61 ERA mark that had stood since 1990.
Nevertheless, Maddon ended up bringing him in for the final out, much to the approval of the adoring crowd.
With the record in jeopardy if Rodney gave up an earned run, Rodney retired Jim Thome on a shallow fly to left field for the final out of a 4-1 win, producing one last arrow into the sky along with his 48th save.
In the process, Rodney lowered his record ERA to 0.60. He'd held opponents to five earned runs in 74 2/3 innings.
"I was surprised by the year I had," Rodney said. "Next year, I want to be the same guy and do my job."
Maddon marveled at Rodney's season.
"Where he's come from, last year and the year before that, that's the part that's probably the most incredible," Maddon said. "... To be as dominating as he is right now coming off some really tough times, it's a tribute to him, too. Opportunity was here. He seized it and he's run with it, but it's kind of amazing."