"I don't know but the guy at the plate seems to think he is."
As we watch another batter try to catch up to another slingshot fastball or whiff at the change that never quite makes it, you start to believe.
Generously listed at 5-foot-11, 175-pounds, which must have been on a day he was wearing some really big spikes with a stiff back, Rodriguez, 23, can bring it. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Bethune-Cookman College in Florida, Rodriguez emerged as the closer for Eugene last summer with 14 saves, a 2-3 record and a 1.78 ERA. He allowed 23 hits in 30.1 innings against 27 strikeouts and five walks, holding batters to a .207 average.
What he lacks in stature, he certainly doesn't in confidence. A genuinely nice and articulate person off of the field, on the mound he is an intimidator. He's not issuing any free passes and if you're going to beat him, you're going to have to hit his pitch, which is either a low sinking fastball or big time changeup. He's not giving in to anyone.
This year he has again flourished in the role of closer leading the organization with 15 saves in 17 opportunities with a 3-1 record and 34/8 K/BB ratio. However, there are some glitches which could cause some concern in the future; mainly batters are hitting .325 against him with 50 hits in 36.1 innings and a 5.45 ERA.
A closer look at Rodriguez's statistics reveal that most of the blow up in his numbers are the result of a few bad outings, and they were really bad, for the most part in non-save opportunities. In essence, Rodriguez is still learning how to pitch in the relief role and learning where he can throw something, and where he can't. Right now, he's catching a little too much of the plate and become more consistent in his performances.
Still he's been getting the outs when it counts and the ability is there.
First of all I don't think many of us know much about you. Last year you were an undrafted free agent Bethune-Cookman College who ended up being the closer for the Eugene Emeralds. Can you fill us in a little more?
R.J. Rodriguez: I'm originally from Miami, Florida, born and raised. I went to high school there and then to two years of junior college at West Palm Beach. After that I transferred to Bethune-Cookman for my last two years which is a division one school in Daytona Beach, Florida.
I saw something on them recently on ESPN about the school being one of the more successful programs in a traditionally black collegiate conference.
R.J. Rodriguez: Yes it's a traditionally black college and the coaching staff had a lot to do with me going there. I was told they win their conference quite a bit so I thought it was a very good opportunity for me. I played two years there and didn't get drafted at the end of the season and was a little disappointed.
But, two weeks after the draft, I got a call from the Padres say they needed another pitcher and I was ready to go. I didn't want to hang them up yet.
So were you a relief pitcher in college?
R.J. Rodriguez: I was a starter in high school and college, really a middle infielder/starter my senior year; I didn't start pitching until my senior year. I was a starting pitcher all four years in college, and once I got here they put me in the reliever role.
So for someone who was an undrafted free agent the team put you in the closer role so that must have really helped your confidence.
R.J. Rodriguez: Yeah, it was kind of a shock to me, a good one, though. They sent me to Rookie Ball [Arizona], and after I had only pitched about four innings they said they were going to send me to Eugene and see how I would do there. They put me in the closer role, and I adapted to it well. I guess I have one of those arms which they call a rubber arm where I can come back every day. I've been fortunate and blessed that I have that gift. I've succeeded early, and I've shown that I could do it, which is why I guess they kept me here.
As someone who follows the organization fairly closely I was a little shocked how hard you throw. I mean you can bring it. How hard do you throw?
R.J. Rodriguez: [laughs] Well this year I've been getting it up to 92 to 93, and I really don't know what is going on. Last year when I was in college the most I threw was 91, but I usually sat around 86 to 88. This year my velocity has increased, so you know I'll take it.
[Editor's note, that night Rodriguez touched 94 with a change that came in at 81 for the same batter].
It seems with you everything is down. A couple of times when you have gotten beat I'm assuming that is when it came up?
R.J. Rodriguez: Yeah I try to keep it as low as possible, just around the knees. The only way a pitcher really gets hurt is when you get it up in the zone. I'm trying to keep it down to get ground balls. I like strikeouts, but what I'm aiming for are those quick outs.
Can you go over the different pitches that you have?
R.J. Rodriguez: I throw a circle change, two-seamer and a slider.
How are your secondary pitches coming along?
R.J. Rodriguez: My changeup is probably my best pitch. I've been very fortunate as my velocity has increased the change has gotten better. My slider is the weakest of the three and I'm always working on getting that pitch better. You know I want to be able to throw three quality pitches.
The Padres really emphasize throwing a quality change. So when they got you in the organization was that the pitch they were really working on you to develop?
R.J. Rodriguez: I had a change already so it was pretty decent and it's really improved since I've gotten here. The Padres preach a lot about the change and I've really been fortunate that I throw it well.
What is the biggest difference between playing the pro game and college?
R.J. Rodriguez: Mainly it's just the preparation and the travel. There are a lot more games; you're talking every day as opposed to two or three times a week in college. Then you throw in the work we do before games and it adds up.
Even though you have had so much success as a closer, how do you bounce back from those few times where a game gets away from you?
R.J. Rodriguez: It's tough, but it kind of comes with the territory. I just try to be ready to pitch every time. I don't have a lot of experience in the role, but you have to learn to put the past behind you. You learn from it, but the next day is a new opportunity.
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