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09/01/08 1:48 PM ET

K-Rod comes full circle with No. 57

From his back to record books, number takes on new meaning

ANAHEIM -- When Francisco Rodriguez was called up in 2002 as a 20-year-old rookie, he had no say in choosing his jersey number and was randomly assigned No. 57.

Of course no one at the time -- Rodriguez included -- put too much thought into what seemed like an arbitrary number for the young reliever.

But that number couldn't possibly mean more to Rodriguez this season, as it also symbolizes the record that the closer has been chasing all season -- Bobby Thigpen's single-season record of 57 saves set in 1990 with the White Sox.

Rodriguez, who insisted that he wasn't focusing on the record earlier in the season, has shifted his focus as he sits at 53 saves through Sunday's action, and he admitted he can't stop thinking about his golden opportunity to break the record.

"I'm getting closer and closer and closer, and honestly I'm not going to lie, I want to break it so bad," Rodriguez said. "But I have to sit back and wait for my opportunity to come. My goal is to make it to the postseason and break that record."

It seems like a certainty that Rodriguez will achieve both of his goals, as he is on pace for 63 saves and the Angels have an insurmountable 17-game lead in the American League West with just 26 games to play.

But it hasn't been an easy road for Rodriguez, who has come a long way from the beginning of the season when he tweaked his delivery to reduce some of its violence and protect his arm and lower body in Spring Training.

At the time, Rodriguez was completely oblivious to the record and was unaware his jersey number would carry so much meaning as the season went along.

"I just found out this year when you guys started bringing it up," Rodriguez said. "I didn't even know what the record was at all. I had no clue."

But it was Rodriguez's change in his delivery that was largely criticized before the season started. It was called a bold move, especially because his former delivery had worked so well and he was headed into a contract year.

Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher, though, recalls the change much differently.

"I think it was just to relieve stress on his ankle at that time, so for him and for myself it wasn't a very bold move," Butcher said. "It was something that had to be done."

K-Rod -- Saved by an Angel

Rodriguez wasn't hurt by the criticism because he has such a hard shell, which is one of the reasons why he has been so successful as a closer. He learned early in his career that being a Major Leaguer means that you're going to hear naysayers, no matter how well things appear to be going.

"It doesn't matter if you save 100 saves in a row in a season, people never are going to give you credit," Rodriguez said. "They're going to point out the negative things. There's always going to be something negative about me, but I'm used to it because it's all I hear. It's something you can't control. You just have to keep pitching."

Rodriguez has heard it all this season. He's heard that despite his gaudy save totals that other closers are having much better seasons. And he's heard that it's not even his best season as a closer in his career because his strikeouts are down and his walks are up.

But K-Rod is having none of it, as he still believes that this is his best season so far in his seven-year career.

"From the standpoint of my numbers, this is my best," Rodriguez said. "I could probably do a little better in some areas, but I've been proud of what I've done so far."

Rodriguez has improved in those areas such as walks and strikeouts, as he hasn't allowed a run in his last eight appearances while striking out 12 and walking none. In fact, Rodriguez has walked just one of the last 57 batters he's faced while striking out 21 of those hitters.

And all that talk about Rodriguez being overused by Angels manager Mike Scioscia has little or no merit. He's on pace to throw 69 innings this season, which is about six innings fewer than his career average and much fewer than the 86 and 84 innings he pitched in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

Rodriguez has been helped by the fact that he hasn't pitched more than one inning in any appearance and hasn't pitched more than three days in a row at any point in the season.

"[Rodriguez's] ability to adapt to situations such as what a hitter has done against him has been very real and had a major impact on why he's been so consistent."
-- Mike Scioscia

But it's Rodriguez's ability to focus on every game and every batter that has made him so successful this season.

"He's been rock solid the whole time out there," Butcher said. "He goes game to game. He's going to try and turn the page when something happens, but at the same time, when he turns the page, he absorbs what he has to, and I think it separates him from a lot of guys."

It didn't take long for Scioscia to become a believer in Rodriguez, as he was instrumental helping the Angels to their World Series title in 2002 as a rookie. And Scioscia's view on Rodriguez hasn't changed much since then.

"He came up as a mature person who understood the game and was blessed with great talent," Scioscia said. "His ability to adapt to situations such as what a hitter has done against him has been very real and had a major impact on why he's been so consistent."

But for Rodriguez, who already has a World Series ring and has more saves than any closer since 2004, the saves record is just the icing on the cake.

Rodriguez, only 26 years old, said it's still difficult for him to appreciate everything that he's accomplished in his career, especially after coming from a tough background in Venezuela.

"My dream as a kid was just to be a professional ballplayer, but you never expect you're going to have so much success," Rodriguez said. "I feel like it's been a very good career so far. I've been successful since I came into the big leagues, but it's going to take a lot of time for me to realize all the things I've been doing. I need more time to realize all this."

But for Rodriguez, if he ever needs to be reminded about the single-season save record, all he has to do is just look down at the No. 57 stitched on his jersey.

Rhett Bollinger is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.