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Chris Rodriguez’s spring performances cried out for spot on Angels roster

Angels' Chris Rodriguez poses for a photo.
Photo of Angels pitcher Chris Rodriguez before spring training.
(Jennifer Stewart / Associated Press)

Chris Rodriguez would love to regale you with the details of the life-changing Sunday conversation in which Angels manager Joe Maddon told him he made the opening day roster but, truth is, the 22-year-old right-hander can’t remember most of them.

“Once he said I made the team, I completely blacked out,” Rodriguez said before Tuesday night’s Freeway Series finale in Dodger Stadium. “It was one of those things where he said you made the team and kept on talking, and I could only hear a little bit. All I could think was, ‘Holy crap!’ ”

Only after Rodriguez left Maddon’s office did the emotions pour out of the Miami native, a 2016 fourth-round pick who overcame a serious lower-back injury to seize a bullpen spot with an impressive spring.

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“I called my family and cried,” Rodriguez said. “My dad is very old school and screamed, ‘Hoo-yeah!’ Once I heard that, I couldn’t hold it in. I held my tears in for Joe. I didn’t cry in front of Matt [Wise, pitching coach]. Once I heard my parents’ voice, it all came out so quick.”

Much like the two-seam fastballs Rodriguez has unleashed all March, a lively pitch that has touched 99 mph with fading action and complements his slider, which breaks sharply from right to left.

Rodriguez threw primarily four-seam fastballs, but soon after reporting to the team’s alternate training site last July, Wise and minor league pitching coordinator Buddy Carlyle suggested he feature his two-seamer.

Here’s the entire schedule for the Angels’ 2021 MLB season, which begins April 1 against the Chicago White Sox at Angel Stadium.

“The movement was really good, but they were kind of worried about the command,” Rodriguez said. “But it was funny. I had more command with my two-seamer than four-seamer.”

Rodriguez has not pitched above the Class-A level, but Maddon said he would not hesitate to use him in high-leverage situations.

“We like the fact he can put the ball on the ground,” Maddon said. “He has a swing-and-miss slider. [The fastball is] high velocity, he’s a strike-thrower, and the makeup is strong. He checks all the boxes [except] maybe the experience box and the date-of-birth box, but everything else is in order.”

After sitting out 2018 because of a stress reaction in his lower back and most of 2019 because of surgery to repair a stress fracture in his back, Rodriguez threw a combined 65 innings at the team’s alternate site and in the Arizona fall instructional league in 2020.

His poise and confidence grew during a spring in which he had a 4.50 ERA in eight games, striking out 10 and walking two in eight innings. Though he has been a starter, he’s entering the season with a fearlessness he’ll need in the bullpen.

“The way I’m wired is, as soon as I step on the mound, I don’t care who you are, I’m gonna come at you,” Rodriguez said. “And if you hit a home run off me, I’m gonna tip my cap and come at you again with all I’ve got.”

Angels manager Joe Maddon tells his team to “play like it’s 1985,” with less emphasis on home runs and more on executing fundamentals.

Shot in the arm

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts declined to say whether he has been vaccinated against COVID-19 or plans to get a shot. “I think those are all personal decisions, and I’ll leave it at that,” he said.

Does Betts think the Dodgers will reach baseball’s agreed upon 85% threshold for vaccinated players and staff members who come in contact with players so health and safety protocols can be loosened?

“Guys have to do what’s best for them and their families,” Betts said. “We are all a team, but those are personal decisions, and I’d like to leave it in the clubhouse.”

Maddon feels confident the Angels will reach the 85% vaccine threshold, “but everyone has the individual right to accept it or not, and I would never try to persuade anyone one way or the other.”


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