Rodriguez is slugging his way to success
“A star is born” is a clichè used in every sport.
Often, it refers to a phenom, born with extraordinary talent in a given field, who has finally made the big time. Very rarely do you hear the words, “a star is built”. That is, unless you find yourself in the Mahoning Valley Scrappers clubhouse.
With so much uncertainty heading into 2013 in terms of leadership, it was anyone’s guess who would be the leader of this Scrappers ballclub. Would it be the endlessly charming, 2012 seventh rounder Josh McAdams? Maybe the soft-spoken pitching ace, Luis Lugo? Maybe an older player or even a coach would take the reigns? It was anybody’s guess.
As it turned out, anybody’s guess was wrong.
Putting in countless hours of study with hitting coach Shaun Larkin, taking extra reps in the cage, and taking care of his body in the right way, that leader was working his way towards the stage. Slowly, steadily, without any flash or volume, he was ready to burst onto the scene.
As the calendar flipped to July, and a leader was yet to emerge, Nellie Rodriguez burst straight to the pinnacle of the Scrappers, the New York Penn League, and even the Cleveland Indians farm system.
Maybe it should have been obvious that Rodriguez was set to be the leader, just judging from his ironic past.
“When I was in middle school, everyone was talking about George Washington High School- the best high school in New York City,” Rodriguez remembered. “So, I decided I wanted to play for Coach Mando and make my career there.”
George Washington High School is a public school in the heart of Manhattan and home to many American greats such as Harry Belafonte (famous actor and singer of the 1950’s), Henry Kissinger (1973 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and former United States Secretary of State), Alan Greenspan (former Chairman of the Federal Reserve),Rod Carew (National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and former Minnesota Twins star) and Manny Ramirez(Cleveland Indians 1991 first round draft pick and Major League Baseball superstar).
It was the latter that resonated with Rodriguez and made the experience of being drafted by the Indians that much more special.
“He was a hero,” Rodriguez said, smiling. “In the winter, he came around to work and stuff like that. It was always nice seeing him. It feels very good to be a part of it, being from the same high school and on the same team that Manny Ramirez got drafted by.”
Rodriguez began the 2013 season with the Lake County Captains, but was unable to stay aboard the ship. A .194 batting average sent him packing to Mahoning Valley, where he was to be the starting first baseman after catching for the majority of his career.
Rodriguez began his time with the Scrappers almost as he had with the Captians, starting off with only a .245 batting average, no home runs, and 8 RBI.
“The first two months, just mentally I wasn’t as prepared,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t feel myself in Lake County. When I got down here, I went to Arizona for a week, felt better, got mentally prepared and just started working and making adjustments on my swing.”
While those adjustments didn’t show right away, it was obvious that Rodriguez was putting in the time necessary and maturing quickly.
“Just by the experience from rookie ball and being in Lake County, this game is more mental than physical," he said. "You just gotta be mentally prepared and let your actions take over.”
And that he did.
The mental and physical work finally gelled, and Rodriguez put on a show in July, impressing his coaches teammates, and even the Indians front office.
In 27 games last month, Rodriguez put together a .383 average (41-107) with 10 doubles, 7 home runs, 21 RBI, 8 walks, a .431 OBP, a .673 SLG, and a 1.104 OPS.
His season totals to this point are good for the New York Penn League lead in hits, home runs, total bases, and slugging percentage, while he is just short of Mike Yazstremski- grandson of Carl Yazstremski- for the NYPL lead in OPS. It was those killer numbers that earned Rodriguez a New York Penn League All-Star selection, the first of his career.
While the Scrappers All-Star has certainly been solid throughout, there are a couple of games that stand out above the rest. When the Scrappers embarked on a road trip to the Big Apple, Rodriguez knew it would be special.
“It felt great seeing my mom get to see me play professionally,” Rodriguez beamed. “Seeing my friends and family, it felt great. I had a lot of confidence playing in front of them.”
What transpired, however, made it more special than he could have even imagined. On the first night in Brooklyn, Nellie had the game of his life, finishing 4-for-5 with two homers and all five of the Scrappers RBIs in the 7-5 loss to the Cyclones. In total, Rodriguez finished the series in Brooklyn with eight hits, including the two home runs, as the Scrappers took two out of three against the Cyclones.
The New York trip continued and Rodriguez’ numbers continued right along with it. Against the Staten Island Yankees, Rodriguez went 3-for-9 in the series, compiling another home run, one double, three RBI, and three runs scored.
It was these games that really got heads turning, but it may be his most recent accomplishment that solidified Rodriguez.
Down a run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, runners on first and third, and a full count against the Williamsport CrossCutters on July 28th, Rodriguez came through in the clutch. A slider came and Rodriguez pounded the pitch up against the wall in deep-left center for a game-winning two RBI double, that sent the Scrappers into a frenzy.
The walk-off smash may have been the highlight of the Scrappers less-than-stellar 2013 campaign. It was certainly a highlight for Rodriguez.
“I felt great because in the eighth inning, I had the bases loaded and a chance to tie the game and popped up to left field,” Rodriguez explained. “I said, ‘if I get another chance, I have to get a hit and win the game’.”
When asked about all of his recent success, Nellie didn’t really have much to say as his humility and quiet nature shined through.
“I’m feeling good," he said. "My swing feels good.I gotta stay confident and keep working hard and everything will turn out good.”
That seems to be his mantra, as well as the mantra for many workaholics in baseball.
Guys who strive each and every day, give their best effort, and put in the extra time as Nellie has, will often reap the benefits.
He understands that completely and lives it out each day.
“Keep working hard and everything will turn out good," he said.
Everything certainly has turned out “good” thus far and could get even better for the next New York Penn League All-Star and George Washington Trojan turned Cleveland Indian.