Checkmate: Francisco learns patience
Closer-in-waiting benefiting from playing thinking man's game
ARLINGTON -- Reliever Frank Francisco is sitting comfortably inside the fortress of couches in the middle of the Rangers' home clubhouse like he always does, but something seems off this afternoon. His elbows are resting on top of his knees, his fingers are tapping the side of his face and his nose is crinkled.
He's quiet, which is rare, and he's staring at the team chess board like it's his worst enemy, which is even more rare.
On the couch to Francisco's right, Ian Kinsler is shaking his head. Closer C.J. Wilson is standing behind the couch to the left with his arms crossed and scratching his chin in deep thought.
Gerald Laird, sitting on the couch directly in front of Francisco, has stopped trash-talking, but only because silence is sometimes the best way to get under the Francisco's skin when you beat him in chess. There will be no Spanish taunting by Francisco, no bragging about how "a true player" eats pawns as a snack and no "taking Laird's horses" today.
"Boo-ya!," Laird yells.
Game over. Francisco walks away with a smile. Now, that's normal. Life in the big leagues has taught Francisco to think before he acts, prepare before he performs and always be in control, especially in defeat. Today is not any different. So whether it's a nerve-racking seventh or eighth inning appearance or a harmless board game against his buddy, "Frankie" has learned when to get excited and when to stay cool.
It's part of who he is now.
That approach, combined with effective pitching, might land Francisco in the closer's role one day. Veteran reliever Eddie Guardado, 37, will see regular action in the ninth inning, now that Wilson's left elbow has him out for the season, but Francisco will get a few opportunities to pitch in the final inning as well.
He can't wait.
"Honestly, I want to be somebody special in the future," Francisco said. "Maybe it won't happen on this team, but I'd like to pitch in the eighth or ninth inning one day. But where they put me, I'm going to do the job, because that's the only way you have a job and have a chance to get better everyday."
This season, Francisco is 2-3 with a 3.21 ERA with 58 strikeouts in 42 games. For his career, he is 8-6 with a 3.80 ERA and without a save in seven opportunities. His fastball ranges in the mid-to-high 90s, but he has been inconsistent at times with his secondary pitches.
But What of Wilson's injury, combined with Guardado's age? What about the Rangers' need for a closer now and in the future? The pieces appear to have lined up in Francisco's favor. But ever the gamesman, he's not going to force anybody's hand. Life and chess have shown Francisco the value of patience.
"I have the ability to close," he said. "I'm a strong pitcher and mentally, I am strong. I don't let the things that are happening on the field or off the field affect me. That's what you need. You need to have a good heart, a strong heart. I think I have that ability. If the opportunity ever comes up that I can be a closer, I'll be ready for it."
"Again, I don't want to stick my neck out saying, 'I want this' or 'I want that'," he continued. "I'm not going to say I have to pitch in 'this inning' or 'that inning.' I just want to do the job they want me to do. I have to focus on the things I can control. That's something that has affected me in the past."
A bad shoulder didn't help matters. Francisco missed most of the 2005 and '06 seasons while recovering from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. In retrospect, the time away from the game likely allowed his image and career to recover. As a rookie in '04, Francisco went 5-1 with a 3.33 ERA, but also became notorious for throwing a chair into the stands in Oakland after a fracas in the bullpen. Emotionally, he appears to have grown up. Physically, he could be even better than '04.
"I see better command," Laird said. "He has always had the stuff but sometimes it has been the command problems. He's getting ahead of hitters and throwing strikes. He's come a long way."
Last season, Francisco went 1-1 with a 4.55 ERA in 59 1/3 innings. He says it was basically a tune-up for 2008. This season, he credits his good health and Guardado's mentorship as the keys to his success.
"Last year, if I thought I had to be in 'this situation' or 'that situation' and I wasn't, it would get to my head," Francisco said. "I would wonder what was going on and what they were doing to me. I would think they didn't like me. But now, thanks to Eddie, I understand what I have to do."
What Francisco needed was confidence and a pitching routine in between outings. He needed a set of workouts and daily tasks to keep him on track whether he was coming off a successful appearance or a lousy one. Guardado helped him find one.
"Francisco has a big heart and that's what I look at. I don't just look at the ballplayer," Guardado said. "Francisco was a guy that just needed a little guidance. You just try to make this game as simple as possible and the most important thing is when you play this game, you want to succeed, but you want to be the best at whatever it is your role is. What is going to get you there is your family and what's in your heart. I told Francisco that and he took off."
Family matters to Francisco in more ways than one. It was his father-in-law that reintroduced him to chess in '05. Now, the reliever plays almost every day.
It has become part of his daily routine.
"Chess makes time fly by and it opens your mind," Francisco said. "I don't think it helps you with your problems or situations on the field, but it helps you become stronger, mentally. It's like going to school and taking a class that you know is not going to help you in any way other than helping develop your mind."
And as far as the daily catcher-pitcher chess rivalry goes, Francisco says that Laird simply gets lucky every now and then. In other words, don't listen to the catcher's boasts.
"I can win two, three games in a row, but he wins, and it's like he won the world championship," Francisco said. "He talks and talks. I play with passion when I play with him to get him off his game. We have so much fun."
Experience has helped Francisco come up with a plan that works for him. Now the jovial Ranger is simply waiting on the right opportunity and, possibly, a rematch.
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.