Rodriguez surmounts major challenge in loss Surviving first, rookie goes strong 6 2/3 , eyes '98 spot


September 17, 1997|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

The Orioles lost the game yesterday afternoon, but, in the process, may have uncovered a future plug-in for their starting rotation.

Not that Nerio Rodriguez suddenly appeared out of thin air. He was their farm system's Pitcher of the Year last season and he went 7-2 with a 2.44 ERA in his final 11 starts at Rochester this summer.

But never had he been so impressive in the major leagues as he was when he extricated himself from a major Cleveland Indians uprising in the first inning and went on to pitch strongly into the seventh of a 4-2 defeat at Camden Yards.

"That's the best he has thrown the ball for me this year," said manager Davey Johnson. "He kept the ball down and kept us in the game. I think he can start in this league. He has a good future."

Those are praiseworthy words for a young player the Orioles acquired from the Chicago White Sox in the Rule 5, Triple-A draft in December 1994 -- when he was a light-hitting catcher.

It took less than a full season for the organization to shift him from behind the plate to 60 feet, 6 inches in front of it.

The first inkling that his job shift was going to be successful came in August 1995, when he compiled a 1.80 ERA and struck out 10 in 10 innings at High Desert of the Single-A California League.

"I don't need to be a catcher anymore," said Rodriguez, 24, a native of the baseball-famous town of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.

"They told me if I didn't pitch, I might not be back the next year, so I pitched. I just said I wanted to play baseball."

His nightmarish start yesterday was launched by two ground singles just out of the range of second baseman Roberto Alomar and continued when he hit Manny Ramirez with a pitch. After solidly tagged run-scoring singles by David Justice and Matt Williams, Rodriguez escaped.

From the second until he was relieved by Jesse Orosco with two out in the seventh, Rodriguez permitted the Indians only three more singles.

"If Robbie had been 100 percent [healthy], the ground balls would have been outs for him," Rodriguez said. "He did his best but couldn't get them. But after I got out of that, everything came together."

"Nothing you could do about those first two hits," said catcher Chris Hoiles. "They could have easily gone the other way and they wouldn't have got three runs. Then, he settled down, mixed up his pitches and pitched great."

Rodriguez said he was slightly nervous and uncomfortable at the onset because he was concentrating on changing the mechanics of his delivery.

Pitching coach Ray Miller's tip included adjustment of his arm angle from almost sidearm to over the top to eliminate flat pitches that had little movement.

Once the pitcher had that ironed out, he was in command of a tough lineup.

"When I'm on, that's the way I pitch, spotting my fastball in and out and using my changeup, which was real good after the second inning," Rodriguez said. "I just tried to make a good effort and hold us in there, but we couldn't make a comeback."

It was Rodriguez's second Orioles start. He was the starter in last year's regular-season finale at Toronto and pitched well but lost to Pat Hentgen, who won his 20th game and later the Cy Young Award.

"It's very important to me to be up here next year," Rodriguez said. "And I'd like to be a starter, but if there is anything open, I'll do it."

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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