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09/14/08 1:46 AM EST

K-Rod nabs single-season saves mark

Angels closer breaks Thigpen's 18-year record with No. 58

ANAHEIM -- With a sellout crowd of 43,757 on its feet and flashbulbs circulating through Angel Stadium to freeze the moment in time, Francisco Rodriguez calmly did what he has done 57 times before Saturday night.

He threw a wicked 3-2 changeup that Raul Ibanez swung through with runners at second and third in a 5-2 game, leading the emotional closer to drop to his knees and point to the sky after picking up save No. 58 of the season.

With that pitch, Rodriguez now held the single-season saves record, breaking a mark Bobby Thigpen set with the White Sox 18 years ago.

"I don't have words to describe how happy I am," Rodriguez said. "I've been waiting for this moment for more than two weeks. Finally it comes true. Now, my next target is just trying to win a championship."

Instead of the customary line of handshakes after a team wins a game, the Angels instead also took their turn to congratulate Rodriguez on a record he holds all to his own.

The closer then sprinted off to the seats right behind the visitors' dugout to blow kisses to his daughters, who were in attendance to celebrate the achievement.

Rodriguez also felt like his grandfather -- who died 10 years ago and is the reason for the closer's signaling to the heavens after each successful conversion -- was at Angel Stadium to share in the special night.

"Definitely, I felt like he was right next to me," Rodriguez said. "He's with me every day. It was a special moment. I will give up anything to have him right next to me and enjoy this moment, but I've got to deal with it, and I know he's happy and proud of me right now."

After breaking the record, Rodriguez opened a congratulatory letter from Thigpen that Rodriguez said "means a lot" to him, a tradition Thigpen wrote was started by Dave Righetti in 1990, when the closer broke Righetti's record.

"A lot of people back home have been rooting for me to break the record," said Rodriguez, who has risen from poverty and harsh beginnings to become a national figure in his Venezuelan homeland. "It's very important for my people, my country, to get that record."

Rodriguez has described his greatest of seven seasons as a "roller-coaster ride," for it began with more chills than thrills.

All-time single-season saves leaders
58Francisco Rodriguez2008
57Bobby Thigpen1990
55Eric Gagne2003
55John Smoltz2002
53Mariano Rivera2004
53Trevor Hoffman1998
53Randy Myers1993

After losing an arbitration case with the club and settling for $10 million for 2008 -- "more than I could have ever dreamed possible," he said -- he modified his delivery during Spring Training under the watchful eye of pitching coach Mike Butcher.

The idea was to reduce stress on his lower body. Ankle pain plagued K-Rod early in the season, and he was distraught after letting a save get away on April 7 against the Indians -- before Torii Hunter won it with a walk-off grand slam.

Rodriguez heard and read a few slings and arrows from critics, zeroing in on his diminished fastball, and his mood darkened. Gradually, however, everything began to come together: save after save, healthy ankles, a brightening of his demeanor.

Something else was surfacing: a killer changeup to go with his wicked curveball and fastball. The change became so effective, it compensated for a fractional loss of velocity, down to 92-94 mph from 94-96 mph.

"Now," catcher Mike Napoli observed, "Frankie has three pitches for hitters to worry about, not two."

Rodriguez's curveball and changeup were working on Saturday night, so when he went to the 3-2 count on Ibanez, it's fitting that he broke the record with a changeup.

K-Rod took 11 saves into May and was dominant: one earned run in 12 1/3 innings, 10 more saves. A 25-save streak ended with a loss to the Mets on June 18.

By the All-Star break, K-Rod had more saves (38) than any closer in history at the season's midpoint. He deferred to Mariano Rivera in the Midsummer Classic, saying the great Yankees closer deserved to have the ninth inning in the final season at Yankee Stadium.

His 12 saves in July kept the meter running, and nine more in August brought him to 200 career saves on Sept. 2 faster than any closer.

K-Rod -- Saved by an Angel

"He's fearless," manager Mike Scioscia said. "I've been around a lot of good closers, but Frankie turns the page better than anyone I've seen. He's been as consistent as any pitcher I've seen. This has really been a magical year for Frankie, but he's been great his whole career."

Rodriguez's peers, the men who best understand the demands of the role, are impressed.

"An unbelievable part of this whole thing is, he's not blowing people away with 95-mph fastballs," Mariners closer J.J. Putz said. "He's added a changeup this year, his velocity is down, but I think hitters are having a harder time against him.

"In the past, he had a fastball and slider, and you could eliminate one pitch and sit on the other. Now, he has three pitches and you can't sit on anything. And he still has that violent motion."

Rodriguez, signed when he was 16 in 1998, was 20 when he arrived in September 2002, striking out 13 in 5 2/3 innings -- an audition that earned him a postseason roster spot and a run of excellence that earned him fame and a new name: K-Rod.

Working 11 of the postseason games, Rodriguez won five, lost one and fashioned a 1.93 ERA. He struck out 28 hitters and walked five in 18 2/3 memorable innings.

A star was born.

"I was so young, so new to everything, I didn't even know what I was doing," K-Rod recalled. "I was running on adrenaline, energy. I wasn't even feeling my body out there."

Three years later, Rodriguez became Scioscia's full-time closer, inheriting the role from one of his mentors, Troy Percival. Since that 2005 season, Rodriguez has more saves than anybody in the game. Now, he has taken it all to a new level, and he's 26 years old.

Eligible for free agency after the World Series, he confided earlier in the season that he'd like to pitch nine more seasons. That would take him to 35. Whatever happens from now until 2017, he'll have a hard time matching the thrills of this 2008 magic carpet ride.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. Michael Schwartz is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.