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Starter or reliever? Impressive Angels rookie Chris Rodriguez leaves open all options

Angels reliever Chris Rodriguez pitches against the Texas Rangers on April 21 at Angel Stadium.
Angels reliever Chris Rodriguez pitches against the Texas Rangers on April 21 at Angel Stadium. The rookie pitcher earned his first win Sunday against the Houston Astros.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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Chris Rodriguez could feel the adrenaline even before he’d thrown his first pitch.

He knew the stakes, taking the mound in the seventh inning of a tied game Sunday between the Angels and Houston Astros. He heard the crowd, a thundering chorus of more than 20,000 opposing fans at Minute Maid Park. He recognized the moment, the biggest yet of his rookie MLB season.

“As you guys can guess,” the 22-year-old right-hander told reporters, “I blacked out as soon as I got on the field.”

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But for Rodriguez, blacking out is a good thing — a sign he’s so locked in that he almost forgets the magnitude of the situation.

And this season, he’s been doing it a lot. After rising to the big leagues sooner than almost anyone expected, he’s having more success than most would have imagined, too.

Sunday was the latest example, Rodriguez earning his first win after stranding two runners in the seventh, a half-inning before the Angels took the lead in an eventual 4-2 victory.

It wasn’t a simple 24-pitch outing for Rodriguez. With one out, he hit a batter. With two gone, he issued a walk. As runners stood on first and second, he fell behind to Myles Straw with two fastballs that missed below the zone. But then he battled back, working the count full before inducing a swinging third strike with a two-seamer that darted off the inside of the plate.

Angels general manager Perry Minasian says it’s too early to make clear judgments on his team’s split record 18 games in, but he sees bright spots.

“We want to keep throwing him into that part of the game,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “He settled down and got out of it, because he’s got that kind of stuff.”

In six appearances and 11⅓ innings this season, Rodriguez has a 3.18 ERA with 16 strikeouts and mostly above-average advanced metrics. This, after never previously pitching above Class-A and pitching in only three minor league games the last three years because of a back injury and the pandemic-prompted cancellation of the 2020 season.

“From the very first day, the team and the coaches have made me really comfortable,” said Rodriguez, who made the MLB roster after an impressive spring training. “Every single game, you gain comfort, you learn more about yourself. That’s what I’ve learned this month. I’m starting to gain more knowledge and expect to gain more knowledge as we continue going forward.”

Indeed, the greatest intrigue for Rodriguez is in what lies ahead. Drafted in the fourth round in 2016 as a starting pitcher, this is his first time pitching out of the bullpen as a professional. The Angels have yet to declare which role they see him in long-term, and Rodriguez hasn’t stated a preference.

“I’m a big believer in, the players will show you where they belong,” general manager Perry Minasian said. “You start putting people into certain places before they actually show it to you, you might make a mistake or two. At some point, they’ll show us where they belong.

“He’s done a nice job and I think it could go either way. If we needed him to start, he could. If we needed him to pitch late in games, I think he’s got the ability to do that. He’s got the makeup for both.”

He seemingly has the stuff for either, as well.

Chris Rodriguez pitches against the Chicago White Sox on April 2 at Angel Stadium.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Rodriguez’s first five outings this season were mostly longer-relief situations, each lasting at least 1⅔ innings and requiring Rodriguez to throw as many as 41 pitches. His two-seamer, an upper-90s heater with late tailing action that he developed last season at the Angels’ alternate training site, was his primary go-to pitch on each occasion. But he also worked in his secondary offerings, throwing curveballs roughly one-quarter of the time as well as a handful of sliders and changeups.

It at times felt like a preview of how Rodriguez might approach a rotation role in the future.

“It’s important that you have four pitches,” Rodriguez said, adding: “Down the road, if I am a starter ... then hopefully all four are there and I can go deep into a game.”

Sunday was different. It was his first time entering with the score tied, the first time he had to handle the pressure of a hostile environment with the game hanging in the balance. Instead of incorporating a variety of off-speed and breaking pitches, he stuck to his two-seamer almost exclusively, throwing it 22 out of 24 times and in every pitch of his final at-bat to Straw.

“The goal is always to get quick outs,” Rodriguez explained. “So we throw our fastballs, and if they hit it, they hit it. But I was trusting [catcher Anthony Bemboom] today. ... We were on the same page and luckily, it turned out well.”

Asked how he thought Rodriguez handled the high-leverage spot, Maddon answered “wonderfully” and said he was aiming to use him again as soon as Monday or Tuesday — another change, after Rodriguez was given at least three days off between five of his first six appearances.

Now that Shohei Ohtani’s blister issue appears to be resolved, the Angels pitcher just needs to get his command ‘tidied up a bit,’ manager Joe Maddon said.

“I’m comfortable in any role that Maddon gives me,” Rodriguez said. “Like I said from the very beginning, no matter what role it is, I’m going to compete. I’m going to make sure I can do anything to help the team win.”

Time will tell if the Angels are taking the right approach with Rodriguez, throwing him into the deep end of a major league bullpen instead of sheltering him in the shallow waters of their alternate training site.

But as he sat in front of a camera Sunday night, answering questions about his first career victory, it looked like there was nowhere else he’d rather be.

“As soon as I came into the game, I was ready to go,” he said, a smile planted on his face. “Like I said, I blacked out — and now I’m here.”

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