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On This Date in Sports September 13, 2008: Save Rod

Francisco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim sets a new single-season record by earning his 58th save in a 5-3 win over the Seattle Mariners at Angel Stadium. The 58 saves break the previous record of 57 saves set by Bobby Thigpen of the Chicago White Sox in 1990. Rodriguez, nicknamed K-Rod, would finish the year with 62 saves.

The term save was first used in baseball in 1952 for pitchers who finished games their team won to find a way to measure the effectiveness of a reliever. The save became increasingly popular and began to be published in the Sporting News, and helped support the Fireman Award given to the best Reliever in each league. It would not become an official stat until 1969, becoming the first new official stat in 49 years since the RBI was introduced in 1920. Over the years, the save stat was adjusted to make a pitcher have to pitch three innings or come into a game with a three-run lead or the tying run on deck.

Through the 1970s, most relievers pitched multiple innings to earn their saves, as pitchers like Tug McGraw, Rollie Fingers, and Goose Gossage became the game's premier finishers. As the 1980s began, relievers became more critical as roles became more defined, with closers being saved for the ninth inning. In 1983, Dan Quisenberry of the Kansas City Royals became the first reliever to crack 40 saves, ending the year with 45. A year later, Bruce Sutter of the St. Louis Cardinals equaled the record. Dave Righetti of the New York Yankees extended the record to 46 saves in 1986. In 1990, Bobby Thigpen of the Chicago White Sox became the first closer to top 50 saves when he had 57. By 1990, the role of closer became planted in the ninth inning, with closers rarely pitching more than one inning. The Thigpen record stood for 18 years, though 50 saves became increasingly common.

Francisco Rodriguez was born on January 7, 1982, in Venezuela. Signed as an international free agent by the Anaheim Angels in 1998, he began his career as a starting pitcher. However, while developing in the minors, he always seemed to be battling injuries. Switched to the bullpen in 2002, Francisco Rodriguez found his nitch and earned a spot on the Halos 40-man roster for a September call-up in 2002. He had an immediate impact there as he was placed on the Angels postseason roster, becoming a reliable set-up man as Anaheim won the World Series. Fans and the media began referring to him as K-Rod along the way.

After the 2002 World Championship, Francisco Rodriguez proved his 2002 success in the postseason was no fluke as he made his first All-Star appearance two years later. In 2005, with the departure of Troy Percival, K-Rod became the Angels full-time closer, recording a league-leading 45 saves. Rodriguez also led the league with 47 saves in 2006.

After 40 saves in 2007, Francisco Rodriguez entered 2008 looking for a big year as he approached free agency at year’s end. Things could not have started better for K-Rod, as he had 11 saves in April and ten more in May. As the season reached the summer months, Rodriguez was red hot with another 11 saves in June to find himself on a record pace as the season reached the midway point. His best month was July, saving 12 games to sit at 44 entering August. On August 24th, K-Rod reached 50 saves, finishing a 5-3 win against the Minnesota Twins. Rolling into September, Francisco Rodriguez hunted down the record and reached 57 saves in a 7-4 win over the Seattle Mariners.

Two nights after equaling the record, Francisco Rodriguez was called upon by Manager Mike Scioscia to finish a 5-2 win over the Mariners in Anaheim. After trailing 2-0 early, the Angels rallied thanks to the bat of Juan Rivera, who went four-for-four with a double, a home run, and three RBI. With Jon Garland in line for the win, Rodriguez got off to a shaky start as Miguel Cairo led off the ninth with a double, followed by a walk to Luis Valbuena. Rodriguez got back on track by getting Ichiro Suzuki to ground out to second, but the speedy outfielder from Japan could reach on a fielder’s choice, beating out a potential double play. Ichiro would add more pressure by stealing second, but K-Rod was now focused on the batter, striking out Wladimir Balentine and Raul Ibanez to end the game without allowing a run.

Francisco Rodriguez would become the first closer to reach 60 saves, closing a 7-3 win over the Texas Rangers in Arlington on September 20th. His final save would come in a 6-5 win on the road against the Mariners four days later. Francisco Rodriguez held a record of 2-3, with 62 saves and seven blown saves in 2008, posting an ERA of 2.24 and 77 strikeouts. The big season would lead to a big contract for K-Rod, as he left Anaheim and signed a three-year contract worth $37 million from the New York Mets.