- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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They say baseball is a game of numbers, the one sport above all that defines greatness with stats. Those numbers and stats suggest the man who could go down as the greatest closer of all time will play in this Mets-Yankees series in the Bronx.
His name is Francisco Jose Rodriguez.
"Are you serious?" K-Rod himself asked when approached recently with the evidence. "I had no idea."
Rodriguez was dressing at his home locker, and surveying the scribbled math on a reporter's frayed notepad.
"I don't really follow numbers and stats," K-Rod said.
He's following them now. And those numbers and stats say the Mets' closer has 258 saves, or 205 more saves than the Yankees' epic closer, Mariano Rivera, had at the same age -- 28 years, 5 months and 10 days.
Yes, 205. Rodriguez is also 197 saves ahead of the pace set by Trevor Hoffman, who holds the all-time record of 596 and who stands 55 ahead of Rivera. When K-Rod absorbed his Secretariat-sized lead over the younger Mo and the younger Hoffman, his eyes went goggle-wide.
"You caught me off guard here," he said. "But if God gives me the ability to close games for another 12 years and keeps me healthy, then I think 700 saves is possible."
Seven hundred saves in a sport that hasn't seen a man reach 600.
"Why not?" Rodriguez said. "Why not? I would love to retire someday with 600 saves or 700 saves. Maybe 750, who knows?"
Nobody knows, of course, which is the beauty of the thought. Ask a bunch of right-minded fans entering Yankee Stadium on Friday evening which Subway Series closer will close down the record books for keeps, and 11 out of every 10 will tell you Rivera's the one.
He has the five championship rings and the one indomitable pitch, not to mention the grace and dignity of a peace-loving head of state.
But assuming he can deploy his cutter long enough to pass Hoffman, who's lost his job in Milwaukee, Rivera might only have a slightly better chance of holding off K-Rod for the saves record than Jack Nicklaus does of holding off Tiger Woods for the Grand Slam titles record.
"In six years or seven years or 10 years from now," Rodriguez told me last June, "I want to be remembered as either better than [Rivera] or equal to him."
This year, K-Rod tempered his words just a bit. But the bull's-eye is still there, right between the 4 and the 2 on Rivera's back.
"I've still got a long way to go; I'm not even halfway to what Mariano's accomplished," Rodriguez said. "I play this game for the love of the game, not for records or numbers. But it's pretty obvious I want to be up there when I retire. ... I want to be in the top three."
Top three? What about the top one?
"Top one," K-Rod agreed. "Hopefully, but I've got a long way to go."
You wouldn't need to be a cynical scout to doubt that Rodriguez can last long enough to make a run at Mo. K-Rod has already thrown 555 regular season innings in the majors, more than twice the amount logged by Rivera at the same stage of his career (Mo did throw 113 more minor league innings than K-Rod, who reached the big leagues at 20; Rivera was 25 for his debut).
And yes, despite the life his pitches showed Thursday night, Rodriguez's velocity is going, going, gone, just like Shelley Duncan's ninth-inning homer Tuesday. So the question can be asked: Did that record 62-save season in 2008 -- when the Angels piled up the miles on a car they knew they were trading in -- strip K-Rod of his horsepower?
This much is clear: The gap between K-Rod's fastball and changeup right now isn't any bigger than the gap between the Braves and Mets.
Unlike Rivera, a study in effortless efficiency, Rodriguez throws like a guy trying to impress his girlfriend by lighting up a radar gun at a carnival booth. His is a violent delivery that screams max-out effort, and it hurts just to watch it.
K-Rod doesn't have Rivera's lean, flexible and athletic physique, either. If his body was built to throw major league pitches for another dozen years, it sure doesn't appear that way.
"Mariano makes everything look so easy and so fine," Rodriguez said, "and he acts in such a classy way. I want to be remembered just like him."
Rodriguez needs to survive 2010 first. K-Rod is often a master of the misadventure, something Rivera is most certainly not. But that doesn't mean Rodriguez is any less certain of beating the Yankees than he was in Anaheim, where he helped the Angels eliminate Joe Torre's team in 2002 and 2005.
"A lot of people see the New York Yankees and just hear the name, and they get scared or get afraid or get nervous or get butterflies," K-Rod said. "But to me, they just seem to be another ballclub.
"It's with all due respect, because they are the most popular and probably the best franchise of all time. But to me they're just another ballclub I have to face. I've got a job to do, and that's to just get them out. My success against them comes because I've been aggressive and I've been able to command my pitches when needed."
K-Rod will have to command thousands of future pitches to scale Mount Mariano, but simple math says it's a do-able proposition.
So Rivera shouldn't bother looking over his shoulder this weekend to see if the Mets' closer is gaining on him. Francisco Rodriguez is already way ahead of the field.
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