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OC Register: Angels’ Chris Rodriguez electrified teammates, fans in Cactus League debut


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TEMPE, Ariz. — The last two times that Chris Rodriguez pitched in games with fans in the stands, his motivations for success were quite different.

Back in April 2019, pitching for Class-A Inland Empire, Rodriguez said he simply wanted to get quick outs because that was the best way to get off the mound and relieve the pain of what felt like a knife sticking in his back.

On Tuesday night, nearly 20 months later and with two screws in his back, Rodriguez unleashed all of that emotion and frustration of years of pain and showed the Angels and their fans what they’d been missing.

“It was a huge adrenaline rush,” the right-hander said. “I’m truly blessed to be out there, and even better that was a big league game… I was letting everything out and taking advantage of the moment.”

Rodriguez, 22, faced just two Cincinnati Reds hitters, but he struck out both of them. His fastball was 98 mph and his slider darted away from Joey Votto for one of his whiffs. He sparked an explosion of Twitter reaction from Angels fans desperate to see their team develop a top pitcher.

“That did not really surprise anybody,” Angels Manager Joe Maddon said. “The new players to the team that faced him in live batting practice, they were raving a couple days ago. Then you saw it in an actual game performance. That’s who he is. That’s what he’s capable of. We’ve just got to keep him healthy.”

That’s been the issue. The Angels’ fourth-round pick in 2016, Rodriguez is far behind on the developmental path in terms of innings. Back issues wiped out almost all of 2018 and 2019, and the pandemic sent him to a 2020 with nothing but intrasquad games at the Angels’ alternate training site in Long Beach.

Since he’s been there, by all accounts his game has gone to a higher level. He is generally considered the Angels’ second-best pitching prospect, behind Reid Detmers.

Rodriguez said his delivery, which had been “herky jerky,” has “calmed down.” He also that pitching what he estimated were 70 innings against his Angels teammates were vital to him learning even more than he might have in a normal minor-league season.

“In the minor leagues, you can face certain batters and, if your stuff’s not as good, you can get away with it, but with the type of hitters we had, up and down from the big leagues, pitching to those guys every single day, they learn about your stuff,” Rodriguez said. “You really have to learn certain things.”

Up until 2020, Rodriguez had spent far too much time learning about the anatomy of his back.

He was a slender high school kid out of Miami when the Angels drafted him, so in the offseason following the 2017 season, he had committed himself to getting in the weight room to get bigger and stronger.

“I think I took it overboard, definitely,” Rodriguez said. “It’s funny to say I worked too hard, but I was putting a lot of stress on my back.”

Rodriguez went through tests and treatment and the Angels just had him rest throughout the entire 2018 season. The back pain actually switched during that time, going from his left side to his right side.

He tried sleeping on the floor, tried sleeping with different arrangements of pillows under his legs.

“Every day, it was very annoying,” he said. “You’re just there, cooking a meal or something, and you’re feeling it. … I was constantly waking up in the morning like ‘Damn it. Let’s see what I can do today.’”

Even with his back in pain, Rodriguez was good enough to open eyes. Patrick Sandoval was his roommate and catch partner in spring training in 2019.

“When you play catch with someone you know, and I thought this isn’t normal,” Sandoval said. “I saw him throw live BP and I was like, ‘That kid’s got unbelievable stuff.’ The sky is the limit for him.”

That season, Rodriguez made it through three games at Inland Empire, not allowing a run in 9 1/3 innings, but it was a grind.

“When I got the opportunity to pitch, it was to the point where I was throwing through the pain, I would have to almost hurt my back for me to maintain it, so the pain would kind of numb out,” he said. “Every inning I went back out, I knew the first warm-up pitch was going to be the worst pitch possible. It was going 30 feet over the catcher or 30 feet into the ground. It hurt that bad the first pitch. Then it would get warmed up after that.”

Obviously, he and the Angels decided it wasn’t a good idea to keep trying that for long. In May, he had surgery. He said he had two screws inserted into his L5 vertebrae. It took him nearly a year to feel healthy, around the start of spring training 2020.

Of course, then the pandemic hit, so Rodriguez couldn’t show his development to anyone but a handful of his teammates and coaches in Long Beach.

They’ve been impressed, though.

“It’s an uncomfortable at-bat because the movement is that severe on 97-98 mph,” Maddon said. “In the day of the four-seam, elevated fastball that kind of just rides in straight, this ball is coming at that (velocity) with a lot of movement. So it’s a different look for the hitter. And then the slider off of that is devastating. And that changeup is also an outstanding pitch.”

Maddon said that Rodriguez’s stuff grades out as a 70 on the 20 to 80 scouting scale.

He went on to compare him to former Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez and late Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez.

“It was love at first pitch,” Maddon said, recalling the first time he saw Fernandez. “I think the same thing happens with Chris. The windup and then here comes this pitch and you see the face and the delivery and everything about it. It’s pretty spectacular.”

Francisco Rodriguez and Fernandez obviously had different career paths, though, with one a reliever and the other a starter. Maddon said Chris Rodriguez still could go either way and could reach the big leagues sooner as a reliever, but could have more impact as a starter.

“As a starter, there’s still things to be learned with this craft,” Maddon said. “And you have to see what it looks like stretched out into five, six innings. Are you able to maintain that kind of stuff? That was the conversation last year. It’s still ongoing. The big thing for us is just to keep him well, because what you saw the other night we don’t believe is a fluke.”

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