Rodriguez rises fast out of crouch

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Remember Sidd Finch, the fictional Sports Illustrated character who threw 168 mph?

Nerio Rodriguez is almost as phenomenal a creation -- and he actually exists.

A little more than a year ago, Rodriguez was a struggling Single-A catcher on the verge of getting released.

Now, he's a reliever for the Orioles, pitching in the middle of a pennant race.

"I still can't believe it," said Jeff Morris, the minor-league pitching coach who helped convert Rodriguez last season at Single-A High Desert.

Rodriguez, 23, probably will be sent to Triple-A Rochester when Armando Benitez comes off the disabled list, but he could rejoin the club when rosters expand Sept. 1, and already figures in next year's plans.

"I wouldn't have any problem starting the season with him with where he's at right now," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said last night.

As farm director Syd Thrift put it: "It's probably the fastest I've ever seen one adjust and perform so well."

Super Nerio has made three appearances for the Orioles, posting a 4.26 ERA. He throws a 90-mph fastball, a slider and a changeup -- all learned within the past year.

"For someone that has never pitched, he understands what you're trying to tell him, and he's able to put it into play right away," Orioles pitching coach Pat Dobson said.

In deed, Rodriguez is the pitching version of "The Natural." Dobson marvels at his easy, almost effortless delivery and expects him to throw even harder once he gains more confidence.

Not that the 6-foot, 165-pound Rodriguez is bashful -- he nicknamed himself "Guzman" after fellow Dominican right-hander Juan Guzman, to whom he bears a physical resemblance.

He is not the first former catcher to pitch in the majors -- former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Mario Soto and California Angels closer Troy Percival are among those who made the switch.

Percival, though, spent three seasons in the minors after the Angels made him a pitcher. Informed of Rodriguez's rapid ascent, he said, "That's pretty amazing."

"He must have pretty good command, pretty good composure," Percival said. "If the arm's there, the command's there, that's all it takes to pitch up here, as long as you can mentally take the pressure."

Well, the arm is there -- "Anyone who traveled in the Dominican knew who this kid was because of his arm," said Rodriguez's agent, Mike Powers.

And the command is there -- Rodriguez has issued only 49 walks in 135 2/3 professional innings, when most pitchers who convert from other positions generally start off wild.

It's unusual enough for a pitcher to jump from Single-A to the majors in one season. It's even more unusual when that pitcher spent his first 5 1/2 professional seasons as a catcher.

Rodriguez was batting .236 at High Desert last season when the Orioles decided to give him a "last call."

Not one last drink before closing time, but one last chance to salvage his career.

"When you see a guy with a great arm, you always give him a last call," Thrift said, "to see what's there."

Rodriguez once threw out four base stealers in a game, but as Thrift said, "It was very obvious he wasn't going to hit."

That left only one option.

The Orioles had acquired Rodriguez from the Chicago White Sox in the Double-A Rule 5 draft on Dec. 28, 1994.

For $12,000, it was worth the gamble.

The Orioles' Dominican scout, Carlos Bernhardt, is the brother of Moncho Bernhardt, the scout who signed Rodriguez for Chicago.

"Carlos knew him the whole time," Powers said. "Then, when the White Sox let him go, Carlos convinced the people here to pick him up."

Carlos Bernhardt said he always believed Rodriguez had major-league pitching ability. The White Sox, too, had discussed making him a pitcher.

"We did talk about that," said Steve Noworyta, the White Sox's director of player development. "Then, all of a sudden that [the draft] happened, and we lost out."

The Orioles didn't convert Rodriguez right away. He opened the season catching at High Desert, and even played three games for Double-A Bowie. But he broke his left thumb, his hitting suffered and his catching deteriorated.

Powers said Bernhardt kept pushing the Orioles to try Rodriguez as a pitcher.

Thus, the last call.

"Syd Thrift told me, 'I want to see you in the bullpen,' " Rodriguez recalled. "He saw me in the bullpen for the first time, and I threw 95-96 [mph].

"He told me, 'What are you going to do? Are you going to be a pitcher or a catcher?' I said, 'The only thing I want is to play baseball.'

"He told me, 'OK, you're going to be a pitcher.' I said, 'OK.' "

And with that, the conversion began.

"It's like starting a kid from step one," said Morris, Rodriguez's pitching coach last season at High Desert and this season at Single-A Frederick.

"First, they learn to crawl, then they learn to walk, then they learn to run -- with a few stumbles and missteps in between.

"That's basically what it was. It was an easy transition from a pitching coach's standpoint. There were no bad habits to break."

Morris said Rodriguez did most of his early work out of the stretch. Once he grew comfortable, he developed a windup.

Rodriguez posted a 1.80 ERA in seven relief appearances for High Desert. He then returned home to the Dominican, where he worked all winter with Bernhardt.

"It was like he never wanted to pick up a catcher's glove again," Morris said.

Bernhardt, though, said Rodriguez initially was reluctant to participate in the morning program he conducts for the Orioles' Dominican prospects each winter.

"They don't believe in themselves, that they can make the change so quickly," Bernhardt said. "They trust themselves, and they trust you later.

"When he began to have a little success in the morning program, he realized he had a chance to be a good one."

Manny Alexander, the Orioles' Dominican infielder, recalled seeing Rodriguez throwing in the bullpen one night before a winter-league game.

"I asked him, 'Are you pitching now?' " Alexander said. "He said, 'I'm pitching -- for the Orioles, too.' "

And when he arrived at spring training, Morris said he had a more consistent slider and a better feel of his changeup.

"Carlos helped me a lot -- 100 percent," Rodriguez said.

He opened the season in the Frederick bullpen, then moved into the rotation. On Aug. 11, he made a spot start for Rochester, allowing one run in eight innings.

The next night, Alexander noticed Rodriguez's name on the scoreboard at Camden Yards.

"Is that the same guy?" he asked another of the Orioles' Dominican players, catcher Cesar Devarez. "What's he doing in Rochester?"

Little did Alexander know that Rodriguez would join the Orioles three days later -- just a year and a day after he made his pitching debut.

Back in Frederick, coach Julio Garcia gave Rodriguez the good news.

"I didn't believe it the first time he told me," Rodriguez said. "I thought he was joking.

"We had lost that night. He said, 'You think I'm joking? We just lost that game.' I said, 'OK. I believe you.' Right away, I called my mom and dad."

He's Sidd Finch. He's Super Nerio. He's The Natural.

Just think, if Rodriguez doesn't make it as a pitcher, he could always go back to catching.

He smiled.

"I don't remember now."

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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