Maybe it's a good thing that Francisco Rodriguez got himself an iPad because he's had plenty of time on his hands this season. Most days, K-Rod is sitting at his locker, occasionally checking his Twitter account. For him, there really hasn't been much to update.
Rodriguez is off to another season of sporadic usage, only this year there's a significant amount of cash on the line, as in his $17.5-million vesting option for 2012. With nine games finished through Thursday, K-Rod is on pace for 47, which would leave him short of the 55 required to lock in the option.
That's not the closer's immediate concern, however. He's only had eight save opportunities through 31 games and 13 appearances. That's a total of 13 1/3 innings in almost five weeks, which means a significant amount of downtime for a closer that usually thrives on the extra work. He looked shaky again Thursday, loading the bases in the ninth inning on two walks and a hit before getting his seventh save.
"I think he needs to have some tension," manager Terry Collins said. "He needs to have it be on the edge. He thinks that's when he pitches the best."
Rodriguez owns the single-season record with 62 saves, which he accomplished in 2008, his last year in Anaheim before signing the three-year, $37-million deal with the Mets. But K-Rod has trended downward since, with 35 saves in 2009 and 25 last season.
Before coming to New York, Rodriguez's saves represented a high percentage of his finished games. For example, since he became the Angels' closer in 2005, Rodriguez had 194 saves in 241 games finished, a return of 80.1 percent in those pressure situations. For the Mets, however, Rodriguez has 67 saves out of 121 finished -- a mere 55.4 percent.
It's not that K-Rod has been ineffective. He's 7-for-8 this season and his conversion rate has never dropped below 83 percent -- done twice the past two seasons for the Mets. It ranged between 87-92 percent in Anaheim. But with less time on the tightrope in New York, reducing his appearances to mostly conditioning drills, it seems to have dulled K-Rod's edge.
"I have to find a way -- one way or the other," Rodriguez said. "It's been a battle the past three years here. I used to pitch day-in and day-out. But one thing I've learned is that's something I cannot control. I've just got to be ready when the time comes and not blow it."
Last season, Rodriguez got into a confrontation with then-bullpen coach Randy Niemann as his simmering temper boiled over because of his usage in non-save situations. While that type of escalation is rare, established closers universally despise that assignment, and it's not uncommon for their performance on those occasions to reflect that.
Jason Isringhausen, with 293 saves on his resume, understands the mental component involved. With the Cardinals, he said that manager Tony La Russa made sure they worked every third or fourth day, regardless of the situation.
But Isringhausen would prefer to have a light throw day in the bullpen rather than enter a 10-0 blowout for work purposes. Even so, nothing can replicate the cauldron of pitching in a tight game in the ninth inning, which is what ultimately makes or breaks a closer.
"Bruce Sutter once told me that the closer is the only guy that comes to the field knowing if he has a bad day, the team's not going to do good," Isringhausen said. "That's just a burden you have to be able to put on your shoulders and be fine with it."
Rodriguez welcomes that burden, if only he could carry it more often. And given the controversial nature of his vesting option, the Mets may be reluctant to run him out to the mound -- and a potential finish -- for the sake of a throw day. Instead, Rodriguez does more side work, and hopes for the save chances to come.
"It doesn't matter how many bullpen sessions you throw," Rodriguez said. "It matters when you go out to the field. Otherwise, you don't have that feeling. It's not the same."