By John Perrotto
Baseball is a game with so many statistics that it sometimes seems as though players are looked at more as numeric values than human beings made of flesh and blood.
Take the case of Wandy Rodriguez.
The left-hander struggled mightily in his first five starts with the Pirates after being acquired from Houston in a trade on July 24. He went 0-4 with a 5.17 ERA in his first five starts and his lone bright spot was notching the first relief win of his eight-year career when he was called on to pitch the final two innings of the Pirates' 19-inning victory at St. Louis on Aug. 19.
Rodriguez had never known any other organization but the Astros. They signed him as an international free agent from Venezuela in 1999 and broke into the major leagues in 2005, just in time to be part of the lone World Series team in franchise history.
Rodriguez had deep roots in Houston and was not happy about being traded, even though the Astros have the worst record in the major leagues and the Pirates are contending this late in a season for the first time in 15 years.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle doesn't think fans took that into account when they began booing Rodriguez and criticizing general manager Neal Huntington for trading three prospects to the Astros for the 33-year-old.
"I was never as good a player as Wandy but what you can feel when you're traded is that there is a heightened sense of anxiety, the feeling I need to better and I need to do better right now," Hurdle said. "You feel you need to validate them trading for me. Wandy isn't a guy who is very animated but when you do have him you realize how much he cares and how much he internalizes things. I think he is starting to relax now."
The relaxation process started in the early part of last week when Hurdle met with Rodriguez for a friendly chat while the Pirates were in San Diego. Pirates right-hander Jeff Karstens, who is bilingual and speaks fluent Spanish, served as the interpreter because Rodriguez's English is halting.
"He was able to express some things to me and I was able to express some things back to Wandy, primarily that he could just take a deep breath and not feel any kind of a burden of expectations," Hurdle said. "I told him we knew he was a good pitcher and he didn't have to prove anything to us."
Rodriguez then had a quality start last Friday against Milwaukee, allowing three earned runs in 6 1/3 innings, though he took the loss.
However, that start was a springboard to something much better Wednesday night. Rodriguez pitched what was easily his best game as a member of the Pirates, working six shutout innings as the Pirates blanked the St. Louis Cardinals 5-0 in a pivotal game at PNC Park.
Rodriguez allowed just three hits while walking three and striking out three. Most importantly, he helped the Pirates take two games in the three-game series and get within one game of the Cardinals for the second National League wild card.
"I feel great because I came here to help the team win," Rodriguez said with a big smile that appeared to part satisfaction and part relief. "I want my teammates to know they can count on me to help them win."
If they didn't believe it before Wednesday night, they believe it now -- and the Pirates suddenly look like serious playoff contenders if Rodriguez keeps pitching like that.