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Angels flamethrower Chris Rodriguez goes from back pain to being plain back

Chris Rodriguez on the pitching mound
Angels pitcher Chris Rodriguez delivers during a spring training game in 2019. Rodriguez is eager to get back on track after a stress fracture in his spine, coupled with the coronavirus shutdown, slowed his progress in the minors.
(Bill Mitchell / billmitchell-baseball.com)

Chris Rodriguez used the words “awful” and “annoying.”

His description made it sound so much worse.

Three offseasons ago, the highly touted Angels pitching prospect attacked his winter training program with too much intensity. He was hoping to add strength and velocity, to propel himself toward the MLB roster after being drafted in the fourth round in 2016 at age 17.

Instead, he accidentally “took it overboard,” he said, exerting too much stress on his back. What started out as gradual pain became exacerbated over time. A stress fracture in his spine eventually developed. He has thrown just 9⅓ regular-season innings at any level since.

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“It’s definitely difficult, mentally and physically,” Rodriguez said. “When something happens to your back … you’re doing a bunch of things that at the end of the day might not work because the back is that delicate, where something might not go your way.”

Angels manager Joe Maddon is looking for a scrappy mentality from his team this season, and leadoff batter David Fletcher could set the tone.

Rodriguez didn’t pitch in 2018. He managed just three starts in high Class-A in 2019 before undergoing a surgery that inserted two screws into his L5 vertebrae. He was in so much discomfort that he sometimes slept on the floor and had trouble standing long enough to even cook a meal.

And after he finally got healthy again last spring, the minor league season was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic, forcing Rodriguez to spend the entire shortened campaign at the Angels’ alternate training site in Long Beach.

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This year, however, the 22-year-old right-hander is hoping to finally get a fresh start. He impressed in his first Cactus League game on Tuesday against the Cincinnati Reds, striking out both batters he faced — including All-Star Joey Votto — and topping out at 98 mph with his fastball velocity. He said his phone was blowing up with congratulatory messages afterward. He described the feeling as a “‘Hey, I’m back’ type of thing.”

“It was my first game in two years where I was kind of letting everything out, in a way, and taking advantage of the moment,” Rodriguez said during a video call Thursday, adding: “When you’re injured and you’re rehabbing and you see all your teammates playing and you can’t do a thing, it sucks at times. So that game to me, it was more like, ‘Hey, I’m here and I’m ready to help.’”

Angels manager Joe Maddon agreed, reiterating Thursday the possibility that Rodriguez — who couples his hard, late-fading fastball with a deceptive slider, curveball, changeup — could make his MLB debut at some point this season.

“Gosh, he can be so dominant and that was obvious,” Maddon said. “It’s not just about velocity. You saw the movement too. It’s kind of unusual.”

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Gov. Gavin Newsom said fans could be allowed at MLB games — including Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium — as soon as opening day in April.

A Miami native, Rodriguez has yet to pitch above Class-A. In 77⅔ career minor league innings, he has a 4.75 ERA. He was impressive in his brief stint with high-A Inland Empire in 2019, striking out 13 batters in 9⅓ scoreless innings. But that season, his back pain quickly became too much to bear, preventing him from throwing bullpens or being able to properly care for his arm between starts.

“Every time I went back out [for a new inning], I knew the first warm-up pitch was going to be the worst pitch possible,” Rodriguez said. “It was either going 30 feet over the catcher or 30 feet into the ground, because it hurt that bad the first pitch.”

He added: “I didn’t want to risk my arm getting hurt because my back wasn’t able to last a whole week. So that’s when I decided to get the surgery. Might as well get it done now rather than get it done in the future.”

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His future is looking much brighter now. Rodriguez threw about 70 innings last year between alternate-site scrimmages and instructional league games. He thinks his delivery is much more consistent. And he said facing triple-A and MLB-caliber hitters taught him how to better sequence his stuff.

This year, Rodriguez wants to break the 100-inning plateau. He’ll likely start the season in the minors — the triple-A schedule will begin in May, with alternate sites and minor league spring camps serving as training options until then — but, if he continues to develop, could be called up to the big leagues in either a relief or starting role, Maddon said.

“It has to be about the player first,” Maddon said. “If we do that right by him, whenever he’s ready, we’ll have that opportunity to get him with us and you should see a pretty good product.”

Rodriguez has learned not to rush it. He said he’s simply taking in this big league camp, learning from veterans and enjoying pitching against MLB competition.

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“It’s felt phenomenal,” he said. “So I’m praying that I continue on this road and everything continues to be great.”


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