Rodriguez getting ready for better fall

Craig Rodriguez came to Ole Miss as one of several candidates for a weekend start just last season. But the fall of 2005 didn't go as well as he wanted or the coaches hoped, and he found himself waiting a while to get into a starting role. When he finally did, he was good.

Craig Rodriguez hopes – and believes – this fall will be better for him than last fall.

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound left-hander arrived at Ole Miss last August out of Pearl River Community College as a pitcher the coaches thought might be a weekend starter for the Rebels in 2006. That actually happened but it took a while.

Rodriguez didn't have much to show after fall practice, and at that time wasn't one of the projected starters when February rolled around. But he kept the faith and persevered, and on the last night in March, Rodriguez got his first start as an Ole Miss Rebel.

Ole Miss was looking, searching, trying to find anything that would get the Rebs on track. At 1-5 in Southeastern Conference play, things weren't desperate yet, but they were getting close.

So the coaching staff named Rodriguez, with nine relief appearances on the season, as the Friday night starter at Georgia on March 31. While reliever Garrett White got the win, it was Rodriguez who got the Rebels started in the important 6-4 victory.

The Sugarland, Texas, and St. Pius X graduate went five and a third innings, allowing only two earned runs on five hits with four strikeouts and no walks. Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said then that was the Rodriguez they knew was here all along.

"Craig Rodriguez competed his rear end off in his first start, on a Friday night on the road in the SEC, no less," Bianco said. "He worked hard and did a good job for us."

That win began a three-game sweep of the Bulldogs and, counting that one, propelled Ole Miss to a 16-8 SEC mark over its last 24 regular season games.

Rodriguez had more highlights as the season went on and was an important part of the Rebels' SEC Tournament championship, Regional and Super Regional season. Now the relaxed, mature, and personable senior wants even more of those moments in the spring of 2007.

"I'm already getting ready," said Rodriguez, in Oxford this summer taking classes and working out. "I'm also pitching some, for a team in Tupelo on the weekends. Last summer I took the entire summer off from pitching. I was so used to throwing a lot and playing in like 120 games a year, and I think not pitching last summer hurt me in the fall. So I didn't want to go through that again."

Experienced, too. Throw that in as one of Rodriguez's characteristics. He's learned a lot about himself and about his abilities, especially through one year of Division I college baseball. But he's still a young senior pitcher. He just had his 21st birthday on June 27.

By the time most college players are seniors, they're at least 22. Rodriguez won't be 22 until after the College World Series next June. On the flip side, his close friend C.J. Ketchum, the Rebels' senior first baseman, will be 24 when the 2007 season starts.

"I'm definitely looking forward to the fall," said Rodriguez, with a 5-3 record last season and a 5.53 ERA, including two complete games among his nine starts, with 20 appearances in 81.1 innings pitched. "This is my last time (to pitch in college), so I have to be at my best."

He gives other reasons for that as well.

"With all the pitchers we have returning (six of them return with at least 29 innings pitched, and that is not counting Rodriguez himself with 81.1 innings), then I've got to be at the top of my game," he said. "We have a lot of experience back, guys who have pitched in a lot of games. You can throw in the bullpen and in practice all you want, but there's no substitute for pitching in a game."

Rodriguez came to Ole Miss with a fastball, changeup and curve. Since he's been here, he's ditched one pitch and picked up another.

"Coach (Kyle) Bunn started working with me on a slider," said Rodriguez, who was drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays after his freshman season at Pearl River. "I've quit throwing the curve ball and just go with the slider now. I'm comfortable with that."

It took Rodriguez a while to get completely comfortable throwing last school year, longer than he would have thought coming in. But when things finally came together, he was an important part of the Rebels of 2006.

In 2007 he looks forward to doing that again, and even to a greater degree.

"I'm ready for the 4-on-1 drills (allowed by the NCAA before fall practice officially starts). I'm lifting this summer and working out. I'm ready for anything and everything to help me be able to help the team next season," said Rodriguez, whose sister, Karen, graduated from Ole Miss, and father, Jack, played baseball at Southern Mississippi (1970-73).

"It should be an interesting fall practice, and the season should be a lot of fun again."

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