GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OMAHA, Neb. – Late Monday night, after a high-wind advisory forced fans to run for cover and both teams off the field – and a subsequent rain storm hung out so long above TD Ameritrade Park that the Florida-Vanderbilt game had to be postponed until Tuesday morning – a tired Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan boarded an elevator at the team hotel.
As he departed and headed to his room, O’Sullivan turned to a passenger and said, “We’re going to throw Paco back out there and try to get the job done.’’
Paco is the nickname the Gators use in reference to sophomore left-hander Steven Rodriguez, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound reliever who grew up in Miami. When he is on, Rodriguez can be a beast to hit.
“He’s a guy that basically against lefties, he works away and makes you hit his pitch,’’ Vanderbilt slugger Aaron Westlake said. “He’s not going to give you a pitch to hit. I’ve been in the league, and he is one of the better pitchers I’ve seen out of the bullpen for a lefty.’’
Regardless of how the Gators finish the College World Series, O’Sullivan’s decision to hand Rodriguez the ball on Tuesday morning after he threw 11 pitches before play was halted on Monday night turned out to be one of his best calls of the season.
“I had kind of an eerie feeling,’’ O’Sullivan said, recalling a suspended game at Vanderbilt last month in which the Gators rallied from a three-run deficit to win 6-5 when play resumed. “A walk here, an error there, and the next thing the complexion of the game changes.’’
O’Sullivan could have slept like a baby if he had known the way Rodriguez would pitch.
When play resumed Tuesday morning at 10:06 CDT, Rodriguez was rearing to go. He had prepared mentally before leaving the ballpark the night before when play was postponed at 10:42 p.m. That’s when Rodriguez returned to the hotel with the rest of the team. He grabbed a bite to eat and then retired to his room for a massage.
He also talked about the game plan with roommate and Gators catcher Mike Zunino. They both knew the importance of Tuesday morning. If the Gators could hold onto a 3-1 lead over the Commodores, their path to the CWS championship series would be much easier.
A win meant the Gators did not have to play again until Friday. If they lost, they would face elimination on Wednesday and the potential of another disappointing trip to Omaha.
“Sully told me, ‘Hey, you are going back on the bump tomorrow, so be ready.’ I just did everything right,’’ Rodriguez said. “I went to bed early, did everything I had to do to get ready for today, and it paid off.’’
The Commodores never had a chance. Rodriguez went to bed as Paco and apparently woke up as Randy Johnson.
Rodriguez used his full repertoire in breezing through Vanderbilt’s lineup and ensuring the Gators remained in the winner’s bracket.
Rodriguez’s outing started the night before when he replaced starter Karsten Whitson with two runners on and two out in the fifth inning. He struck out Westlake on a nasty slider that even had Vanderbilt alum and well-known ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney raving about the pitch on Twitter.
He retired the first two batters in the bottom of the sixth on Monday – getting Mike Yastrzemski to fly out as sirens blasted throughout the ballpark due to the approaching storm system.
Rodriguez wanted to stay out there to face Jason Esposito and finish the inning until someone said something about a potential tornado.
“I’m from Miami. Hurricanes are the only things we see,’’ Rodriguez said. “When they told me it was tornadoes, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll be the first one in the locker room.’ I didn’t know what to expect because I’ve never been through anything like that.’’
Of course, none of the Gators had, certainly not at the CWS in the biggest game of the season. After a 2 hour, 40 minute weather delay, the Gators packed their bags and called it a night.
They woke early on Tuesday and as soon as Rodriguez rolled out of bed, he felt like it was his day.
“I felt really comfortable from breakfast on,’’ he said. “My body felt really good. I went out and stretched and did everything, and my arm just felt loose and ready to go.’’
With Esposito finally in the batter’s box, Rodriguez struck him out on three pitches to finally end the sixth inning more than 14 hours after it began. In the seventh, he started off by striking out Conrad Gregor on three pitches.
The same routine played out consistently until Gregor struck out to end the game. Rodriguez faced a total of 14 batters, striking out a career-high seven. The only base runner he allowed was a one-out walk to Connor Harrell in the seventh inning.
Zunino said that’s the best he has ever seen Rodriguez, who when we last saw him he was walking off the field at McKethan Stadium after only one pitch to Mississippi State’s Nick Vickerson. Rodriguez’s fastball ended up in the left-field bleachers for a two-run walk-off homer by Vickerson, forcing a Game 3 of the Gainesville Super Regional.
“Everything was working for him,’’ Zunino said. “He carried his momentum in from last night into to today and was able to throw a lot of strikes. Nothing fazes him. He has so much confidence that you would never know that that pitch [to Vickerson] happened. From right after that pitch, it looked like it never happened.
“He came out here and delivered for us today.’’
After the walk to Harrell in the seventh, O’Sullivan got Nick Maronde and Tommy Toledo up in the bullpen briefly. They were soon able to sit back down.
“He did what he needed to do,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He's done that a lot for us this year. He's one of those guys that he may not get the notoriety that some of the other guys do, but the guys in our locker room know how good he is and how valuable he is. I've said for a long time he's got a chance to pitch in the big leagues for a long time.’’
Rodriguez made the Commodores look helpless thanks to all his pitches working together like a smooth-running assembly line. As soon as a batter looked for one pitch, Rodriguez would throw another for a strike.
“It was a combination of my cutter, change-up, fastball and slider that I could use against all the batters to keep them off balance,’’ Rodriguez said. “If I’ve got my cutter going and my change-up is there, I felt like I could dominate the whole way around their lineup.’’
Despite the unusual circumstances, Rodriguez said he kept his routine the same. He had long since put the pitch to Vickerson in his rearview mirror.
“Mississippi State was just another game,’’ he said. “I went out there and tried to do my job and it just didn’t work out for me.
“Yesterday, when the sirens went off, I was kind of upset because I was dealing, and I felt really good. So I was like, ‘God, I don't need this to happen right now.’ I was like hopping around in the locker room trying to stay warm so I could go back out there, but it didn't happen. So, I was like, ‘let's prepare for today, and go at it.’
“Everything came out in my favor.’’