As memorable moments go, this one seemed more inevitable than dramatic.
It began with the bullpen gate swinging open. Then Francisco Rodriguez, as he always does, made his way down half a dozen concrete stairs, walked slowly across the warning track and skipped a step before sprinting to the mound.
Fifty-seven times Rodriguez had made similar trips to save Angels wins. What made this one different was the fact that no one had ever done it 58 times in a season.
With many in the sellout crowd of 43,757 on their feet from the time he reached the mound, Rodriguez struck out the last two batters he faced to close out the Angels’ 5-2 win over the Seattle Mariners on Saturday and write his name into the record books.
“I don’t have the words to describe how excited, happy I am right now,” he said. “It was something amazing. I haven’t felt this in so long. When we won the World Series, that’s the last time I had that emotion.”
After getting Raul Ibanez to flail at an 88-mph changeup, Rodriguez dropped to his knees and blew a kiss to the heavens, a thank-you, he said, to both God and the pitcher’s grandfather, Juan Francisco, who died a few months after Rodriguez signed with the Angels 10 years ago.
“He was there,” Rodriguez said of his grandfather. “Definitely I felt like he was right next to me. He’s with me every day. I know he’s happy and proud of me right now.”
And so were his preschool-aged daughters, Adriana and Destiny, who stood cheering their father near the Seattle dugout when he pushed aside Bobby Thigpen’s 18-year-old record.
After that final pitch, his 24th of the scoreless inning, Rodriguez was mobbed by teammates, beginning with catcher Mike Napoli. When Manager Mike Scioscia reached the mound, he wrapped the pitcher in a long hug and whispered in his ear.
“I just said, ‘Hey, congratulations and there’s maybe 10 or so more saves hopefully you’re going to get before this thing is all done,’ ” said Scioscia, whose team needs 11 postseason victories to win another World Series. “A lot of great things have happened this week. For it to culminate tonight with Frankie setting a record that’s up there with just about any record that’s in baseball, it’s special.”
Which is one reason why Rodriguez, in addition to feeling happy and excited, also felt relieved to finally get the record save out of the way.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for more than two weeks. Finally, it came true,” said Rodriguez, who found a chilled bottle of champagne waiting for him on his chair in the corner of the Angels clubhouse. Soon to be missing, however, were his game jersey and the ball with which he struck out Ibanez. Both of those are on their way to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Rodriguez’s fellow Venezuelan, Juan Rivera, provided most of the Angels’ offense, hitting a two-run home run in the second inning, a run-scoring double in the fourth and then hitting a double and scoring on Brandon Wood’s single in the sixth.
Rivera hit another double, in the eighth, to match a career best with four hits, and the three runs batted in equaled a season high. But Rivera, who has driven in 16 runs in his last 13 games, strained his right leg running out his final double and left for a pinch-runner. Still, he took some satisfaction out of helping his countryman to the record.
“It was everybody, not just me,” said Rivera, who is expected to sit out the next couple of games at least. “But I’m proud that I was able to help him destroy the record . . . and put Venezuela in front.”
With the record out of the way, though, the goal now is to put the Angels in front, giving Rodriguez a chance at one more save -- in the final game of the World Series.
“The one to win the World Series, that’s going to be the more important one,” he said. “The next step is to get the ring.”
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Closing at No. 1
The top single-season saves leaders:
*--* Name, Team Year No. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels 2008 58 Bobby Thigpen, Chicago (AL) 1990 57 Eric Gagne, Dodgers 2003 55 John Smoltz, Atlanta 2002 55 Trevor Hoffman, San Diego 1998 53 Randy Myers, Chicago (NL) 1993 53 Mariano Rivera, New York (AL) 2004 53 *--*