Bullpen lefties making life easy for Dodgers
WASHINGTON -- The two left-handers in the Dodgers' bullpen have been consistent options throughout the season, shutting down left-handed hitters and more than holding their own against righties. That's about where the similarities end for J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez, two pitchers who took very different paths to the same role.
Rodriguez, a reliever throughout his three-year collegiate career at Florida, was the Dodgers' second-round pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft and made it to Los Angeles last September, the first in his class to reach the Majors. The 22-year-old has proven his big league readiness, with a 2.18 ERA over 58 career appearances. This year, his .132 opponents' batting average leads the Majors. According to Rodriguez, that previous experience as a reliever helped him "tremendously."
"I understood how to be a bullpen guy," said Rodriguez. "Sometimes it takes a starting pitcher a little time to get used to warming up without having to long toss and the whole gig. For me, it was just something I did during college, so it was easy for me."
Howell knows the other side of things. He started throughout the Minors, but posted a 6.34 ERA over 33 outings from 2005-07 with the Royals and Rays. The 30-year-old now believes he wasn't mature enough and didn't have the work ethic to handle the time off between starts.
He finally flourished when Tampa Bay sent him to the bullpen in '08, though he also went through an adjustment period. Then-teammate Dan Wheeler was instrumental in helping Howell find a proper warmup routine and learn how to prepare mentally.
"It took me a while to learn that aspect of it, the everyday mentality, because as a starter it's much different," said Howell. "If you come into it like Paco did, he's coming in with experience. It took me two, three years to learn that -- and he had it. I think that's why you're seeing such a great season with him -- and even last year, in the short stint he had, he did well."
If Rodriguez has been the Dodgers' No. 1 lefty out of the bullpen, Howell has been No. 1A. He owns a 2.25 ERA over 40 appearances, holding opponents to a .201 average -- including .159 against lefties.
A lot of that success can be attributed to health. After two strong seasons with the Rays, Howell missed 2010 to have surgery on his left shoulder, then posted a 6.16 ERA in '11. He bounced back last year, then signed with Los Angeles. He is finally feeling like his old self, forming a highly effective duo with Rodriguez.
The rookie has impressed Howell, both with his stuff and with his approach.
"Everything looks like a fastball, and he throws a lot of fastballs. So when you see that and your brain tells you to swing at that pitch, you kind of have to," Howell said. "He's a funky guy, but at the same time, mentally he's one of the toughest guys out there. … He's prepared every single day, he's ready to take the ball every moment. He'd take the second inning or the ninth inning and treat it the same, and that's really important."
The southpaws' impact has been on display in the team's series in Washington. Rodriguez entered a tie game on Friday in the seventh and pitched 1 1/3 scoreless, retiring a pair of tough righties in Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman. It was deja vu on Saturday, when he again entered a tie game in the seventh, this time striking out Bryce Harper with two runners on base. Howell closed out the eighth by retiring Denard Span with two more aboard.
"It's nice to have two guys, that's for sure," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said of his lefties. "And both of those guys really are not bad against righties, and that kind of helps, too. A lot of times, you see what [Nationals manager Davey Johnson] does -- and a lot of different managers do it. They're gonna put some righties in between their lefties, if they can, to make you go through a righty to get to the next lefty -- or you've got to use one guy. So it's nice to have that lefty that gets the [right- and left-handed hitters] out."
Righties are hitting .253, but with only a .342 slugging percentage, against Howell. They've managed a .137 average against Rodriguez, almost identical to his number against lefties.
Although Mattingly still uses him somewhat sparingly against tough righties, Rodriguez has been earning more difficult and higher-leverage assignments. He believes the key has been getting his sinker and changeup to the inner half of the plate, something that's easier to accomplish with his cutter and slider.
"It helps me out a lot," said Rodriguez, "because it keeps them off balance and I'm able to throw all my pitches -- and it just keeps them guessing."