PALO ALTO, Calif. -- It’s nearly midnight in Houston, Tex. The thunder rolls in the distance. The lightning that had sent the Houston Regional participants scurrying into their respective dugouts earlier in the day is now just a dim flash in the distance.
Except for the bolt in the bat of one Devon Rodriguez.
Anyone who followed the California baseball team in that magical 2011 season knows the rest. With the count 1-2, the then-19-year old sophomore rapped a seeing-eye single off of Baylor’s Logan Verrett through the right side of the infield with the bases loaded to plate Austin Booker to tie the game, and then sending Tony Renda plate-ward for the winning run, despite the future-second-round draft pick blowing a tire coming around third.
It seems like a lifetime ago. Now 21, Rodriguez has endured what could very well have been a career-threatening injury and a lost season. Now, it’s up to him to guide this young group of Bears back to the Promised Land.
“It’s different, because getting the new freshman class, you’ve got a lot of different personalities, and you’re trying to lead everyone,” says Rodriguez, now heading into his senior year with a Feb. 15 opener against visiting Michigan. “You’ve got to say, ‘I’ve been to a College World Series. Follow me.”
It’s tough not to follow Rodriguez. He is possessed of an open, ever-youthful face. He’s everyone’s little brother, but at the same time, not. The sound the ball makes coming off his bat puts the Campanile bells to shame. The resonant ringing as the cowhide springs off his stick reverberates off the walls of the RSF in left and center field. Even his outs are hit hard. The freshman hurler possessed of the most cocky swagger -- Ryan Mason -- proudly says that he “owns” Rodriguez in intrasquads, but he still fears every time he has to pitch to the senior first baseman. He has to use every weapon in his repertoire.
And, to think, his career may very well have ended last season.
In the final scrimmage before the 2012 campaign began, Rodriguez dove back to first base for a groundball and slammed his knee on the dirt. It seemed innocuous. But, as the days went by, it got stiff. It swelled. It hurt. He had injured his medial collateral ligament, and it had to be immobilized in order for him to recover with any hope of playing for the rest of the season.
After playing in one games against Nebraska and three against Oregon State, Rodriguez was put on the shelf again. He had developed a serious blood clot in his calf.
“It was because of the brace that I was wearing. It was immobilized for so long,” says Rodriguez. “It literally feels like your calf is going to explode. That’s what it felt like. It was tight, I couldn’t put pressure on it. That was pretty painful.”
To break up the clot, Rodriguez then had to go on blood-thinners for two months, which prevented him from taking the field again all season. Even if he felt great -- he was walking without any encumberment, moving around just fine -- he couldn’t play. It was just too risky. By the time the blood-thinner regimen was complete, there were only five games left in the season.
“You can’t do any physical activity, anything,” Rodriguez recalls. “There was too much of a risk. It was definitely one of the scariest moments of my life, when they told me I had a blood clot and what it meant. It was devastating. But, I’ve gotten through it and I feel better than ever.”
Through all of fall ball, Rodriguez raked. Aside from preseason first-team All-American Andrew Knapp, Rodriguez was the most consistent hitter on the roster. He had power to all fields again. Each ball off his bat was a rocket. His swing was easy and effortless. He was long, he was strong and he was ready to get his season on. Then, in the last scrimmage before the Alumni Game, he dove back into first base after a single. He laid on the ground for a good five minutes. ‘Not again,’ he thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’
“As soon as it happened, I knew something was wrong, immediately, and it was one of the worst pains I’ve felt,” says Rodriguez.
“It was on my birthday -- my 21st birthday,” he chuckles, fatalistically. “I just dislocated it, but I had never dislocated a shoulder before.”
Luckily for Rodriguez, it was just a dislocated shoulder. Though it was his right shoulder – his lead shoulder while hitting, and his throwing shoulder in the field – head coach David Esquer made sure to shut him down for the rest of fall (which, to be fair, was only another week), and kept him off the field -- but not out of the batter’s box -- all of spring practice, leading up to the season opener on Friday.
“We committed to not letting him play any during intrasquad, and we’re hoping that, the first game, he can get there,” Esquer says. “So our hope is to keep working at it until he can get out there. He’s definitely going to hit.”
Rodriguez’s time off, between his injury last season, and his months on the shelf more recently, have given him time to reflect, time to mature, time to gather the storm clouds into a massive thunderhead. Now, like that slow, low rumble in the distance two years ago, something is building, and Rodriguez is at the center of it.
“I think, just mentally, getting through the injuries really helped me in my hitting, just not getting down on myself, moving on after a bad swing and getting after my swing in the cages,” says Rodriguez. “It really helped me deal with the mental side of the game a lot better, and that’s really helped me by leaps and bounds. I’m a lot more patient, a lot more mentally tough, just moving on after bad things happen, just knowing that there’s going to be failure, but still looking for that success. It’ll come to me if I’m always looking for it.”
And, he won’t be alone. Between Rodriguez, Knapp and a pair of freshmen, this lineup could have plenty of thunder all its own. With Rodriguez potentially not being able to play the field early on, true freshman Mitchell Kranson will likely step in at first. The 5-foot-8 corner infielder isn’t exactly your prototypical first baseman, but, like program alum and World Series hero Allen Craig, his bat plays much bigger than his stature. Another reason Kranson will have to take first is the absence of eighth-round draft pick Nick Halamandaris, who broke his right thumb fielding a groundball during winter break. But, when all three are healthy, with Kranson at designated hitter and Halamandaris likely in right field, the lineup will have a lot of pop.
“When he got hurt, he’s non-stop, working on his legs, one-handed swings, keeping his arm in shape. Not only him, but that whole freshman class,” Rodriguez says. “They’re a bunch of hard workers, and I’m excited to see how they’re going to help our team.”
Now it’s up to the Hero of Houston to put them on the right path.
“You’ve got to know it’s not about you anymore. It’s about the team. They’re all watching you, they want to see how you go about your business, and you’ve got to go about your business the right way,” Rodriguez says. “I will say that they are one of the hardest-working classes that I’ve seen, since I’ve been here. The way they go about their business ought to be good. They all expect that they’re going to play.”