Chris Rodriguez Shines In Return To The Mound
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Chris Rodriguez waited over a year and a half to get back on the mound while he dealt with a stress reaction in his back.
His return went about as grand as he could have imagined.
Rodriguez touched 97 mph and displayed a dazzling array of secondary pitches in an eye-popping start Saturday night, helping high Class A Inland Empire (Angels) to an 8-2 win over Lake Elsinore (Padres).
Rodriguez, the Angels' No. 15 prospect, pitched only 2.2 innings before reaching his prescribed pitch limit, but that was all he needed to make a loud impression.
“To be able to touch 97 (mph) and have the command of all four of his pitches, that’s elite stuff,” Inland Empire pitching coach Michael Wuertz said. “You don’t see that at this level. Most of those guys are in the big leagues.”
Rodriguez, 20, came out sitting 94-95 mph and touching 97 mph with his fastball to turn heads immediately. That was just the appetizer.
The 6-foot-2 righthander began snapping off a swing-and-miss 87-89 mph slider, introduced an 84-87 mph changeup that had lefthanded hitters lunging and lastly revealed a late-breaking 81-83 mph curveball that locked up batters’ knees, all in the first inning.
It wasn’t just a one-inning flash. Rodriguez held his velocity at 93-94 mph for the entirety of his outing while keeping command of his secondary offerings and mixing them effectively. After allowing a fly-ball double to Jeisson Rosario to open the game, he didn’t allow another hit.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for about 20 months already,” Rodriguez said. “Being out there just is a huge blessing for me. I’m back and I’m better than ever I feel like.”
Overall, Rodriguez allowed one hit, no runs, walked two and struck out two before being pulled at 43 pitches, just shy of his 45-pitch limit.
The start was a long time coming.
Rodriguez’s last start prior to Saturday came Sept. 2, 2017 with low Class A Burlington. He was the Rookie-level Pioneer League’s No. 2 prospect that year and appeared primed to ascend, but he suffered a stress reaction in his back the following spring and ultimately missed the entire 2018 season.
When he toed the rubber at San Manuel Stadium, it marked just over 19 months since he last pitched in a game.
“There was so much excitement getting back on it, having a crowd behind me and having nine guys with me on that field,” Rodriguez said. “It was just huge excitement. There’s no better feeling.”
The next step for Rodriguez is to build stamina. Beyond missing all of last year due to injury, he’s never pitched more than 57 innings in a season or thrown more than 80 pitches in a start.
Based on the stuff and command Rodriguez showed in his return, durability may be all that stands between him and a bright future as a big league starter.
“He puts things together and does what he does and stays healthy, who knows what’s going to happen with this kid?” Wuertz said. “There’s no doubt he’s got all the God-given tools and talent and everything. It’s just a matter of getting his innings in and staying healthy over the course of the year. This kid has got the talent that can take him a long ways.”
Rodriguez is well aware of the need to get innings under his belt. For now, he’s just happy to be pitching back in games that count.
“It was super rewarding,” he said. “I’m super happy with where everything is at. Like I said, it’s just a blessing to be back.”
NEWS AND NOTES
— Lake Elsinore righthander Mason Thompson stood out in his own right, touching 96 mph and striking out seven over four innings. Thompson’s fastball sat 95-96 mph in the first inning before settling in at 92-94 mph for the duration of his outing. He supplemented his heater with an upper-80s changeup, a mid- to upper-80s slider and an upper-70s curveball, and he showed flashes of being able to draw swings and misses with all three. Thompson battled his command and was victimized by poor defense, leading to him needing 79 pitches to get through his four innings.