UCLA catcher Steve Rodriguez is ‘unsung hero’ of team

Reporting from Omaha — UCLA catcher Steve Rodriguez is in the position where at times it helps to be a little corny.

When he visits the mound to speak with one of the Bruins’ talented pitchers during tense moments, he usually calms them with a joke. The lamer, the better.

“I always have a joke of the day set up,” he says.

Rodriguez is the oft-ignored component of the Bruins’ dynamic pitching, but he has been important in the success of Trevor Bauer, Gerrit Cole and Rob Rasmussen. He, too, is why UCLA is just one victory from advancing to the championship round of the College World Series.

The Bruins (50-14) face Texas Christian at 1:30 p.m., Friday at Rosenblatt Stadium.

“He’s the unsung hero of this team,” UCLA Coach John Savage says. “He catches some of the best arms in the country. He works with them mentally, pitch to pitch, game to game. He’s really one of our MVPs.”

Rodriguez, a sophomore out of Bellflower St. John Bosco High, is batting .256 with eight home runs and 37 runs batted in, but the most important part of his job is handling the pitchers.

There’s Bauer, who Rodriguez says “does his own thing.” They communicate less than the others, allowing Bauer to dictate.

“He doesn’t get too high or too low,” Rodriguez says of Bauer. “I don’t have to talk to him that much. He’s on his own for the most part.”

Rodriguez has the best relationship with Cole. They were roommates as freshmen, and remain close friends. The jokes usually fly the most when they’re together, but the mood remained serious during Monday’s game against Texas Christian.

Cole had been cruising before allowing three runs in the seventh. With two out, Savage headed toward the mound with plans of inserting reliever Dan Klein. Cole remained in the game, and the Bruins held on for a 6-3 victory.

“It was an intense meeting,” Rodriguez says. “Gerrit just said, ‘Coach, trust me, I’ll get this guy.’ I looked at Coach and said, ‘This is Gerrit’s game.’ The next thing you know, on the next pitch, we got the guy out.”

Rodriguez has made the biggest impact with Rasmussen, who is Friday’s likely starter. After the Cal State Northridge game Feb. 21, Rasmussen’s first start, Savage decided to let Rodriguez call the games he pitched.

It resulted in an 11-2 record and 2.73 earned-run average for Rasmussen.

“He’s been just unbelievable, especially for me,” Rasmussen says. “He knows what we want to throw. He deserves a lot of the credit for our success as a staff and manages things and kind of runs the game.”

The Bruins have already beaten their next opponent, TCU. The Horned Frogs eliminated Florida State on Wednesday, 11-7.