Giants finally find a way to solve Angels' F. Rodriguez

October 24, 2002|By LAURA VECSEY

SAN FRANCISCO - From the slums of Caracas, Francisco Rodriguez will tell you he comes from a dangerous place. Drugs and guns and the criminals who ruled the mean streets of his birthplace often sent Rodriguez running for cover.

So how could facing Barry Bonds in a baseball game - even ones as big as these in the 98th World Series - necessarily scare him?

The young man and father of two little girls has already proved fearless, making it to baseball's promised land from such a gritty beginning. But the wonderful story of his undefeated postseason could not last forever, could it?

A 20-year-old rookie who gets called up in September and becomes the hottest postseason surprise hurler this side of Fernando Valenzuela - he couldn't remain a mystery forever, could he?

No, even if Rodriguez has been the second most-impressive thing to watch this World Series after the Herculean homers by and string of walks to The Big Man - Barry Bonds.

The Giants figured it might work out this way. They had stood and flailed as the Angels' reliever known as K-Rod blew them out of the water during Game 2.

The Venezuelan threw three sizzling shutout innings and paved the way for the Angels' dramatic win in Game 2. He was on fire that night. He threw 26 pitches in three innings, 22 for strikes. He bettered Randy Johnson's record for wins in the postseason by recording No. 5. His team was 9-0 in games he pitched.

It had also been K-Rod's World Series, especially when he faced down Barry Bonds and showed no fear.

But that was then.

After that draining loss in Anaheim, veteran hitters like Jeff Kent and the other Giants who will not concede the World Series yet to the scrappy Angels said it. The three innings they saw from Rodriguez in Game 2 would help build the book they could use against him.

Next time, they would have a better understanding, a better chance.

Guess what? Next time did indeed come. It came last night, even as Rodriguez was rested and ready to use his filthy sliders and cut fastballs to embarrass Giants hitters. He did that for one inning last night, when in the seventh he looked like a bad, recurring nightmare in the making for the near-desperate Giants.

But it wasn't the same for K-Rod last night. The Giants were ready, so they administered a brief but effective licking, beating the fearless kid for the one run they needed to break a 3-3 tie and secure the Game 4 win, 4-3.

By the time Tony Bennett's recording of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" was playing on the Pacific Bell Park sound system, everyone knew that Kent has been right. And it wasn't a moment too soon, since the win last night prevented the Giants from looking at a 1-3 hole.

Now this World Series is tied again, although the Giants will have to find many more ways to shut down the relentless Angels offense two more times. That's no easy task, which Giants manager Dusty Baker admitted last night when he said he might switch last night's winner, Kirk Rueter, to a possible Game 7, instead of Game 3's loser, Livan Hernandez.

But who figured the Giants would so desperately need to find a way to beat the kid from the mean streets of a Caracas slum last night? In a 3-3 tie, after Rodriguez had gotten Bonds to strike out in the seventh inning, the Angels' reliever took the mound again in the eighth.

No problem there. Rodriguez is the man Angels manager Mike Scioscia has gone to time after time, ever since September, when the Angels brought Rodriguez up for a look and surprise! The Angels were so amazed at the right-hander's stuff, they not only kept him around, they made K-Rod the centerpiece of an already tough bullpen.

Scioscia had no reason to second-guess the decision to ride Rodriguez in the eighth. Indeed, the Giants had worked hard to keep this game in check, knowing they had to keep the Angels off the board and hoping they could find a way to do what they couldn't against K-Rod in Game 2.

That chance came in the eighth inning. All it took was a leadoff single from Giants first baseman J.T. Snow, then a passed ball by Angels catcher Bengie Molina to allow Snow to get to second. That's when third baseman David Bell delivered the line-drive single to center, scoring Snow for an unearned run.

"You might be a little spoiled by Francisco, coming in and being incredible, getting people out," Scioscia said.

"But that's not the average life of a pitcher. I don't think you can look at what Francisco did or didn't do. J.T. got a hit and then David got one, too. Occasionally, you're going to give up hits."

Bell said his game-winning and Series-changing hit came on a fastball, but he would not confess as to whether the Giants were better prepared to face Rodriguez last night.

"He's had a lot of success. He's done a great job for those guys. To get a run off of him was important," Bell said.

The Giants have new life. Completely. They have identified Rueter as a pitcher who can quiet the Angels, like he did last night with his corner work and defense. That gives them hope. So does the idea that K-Rod has been solved, his string of wins done.

One of 13 children born to parents who surrendered him a few months after his birth, Rodriguez will be back, with a vengeance. He has his priorities straight. His grandparents are the ones he thanks for keeping him loved, alive and giving him the chance to reach his dream place. He was beaten for a run last night, but is he defeated? No. Not this young man.

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