Back in 2019, the only thing Angels prospect Chris Rodriguez knew about his first warmup delivery in each inning is that the pitch was going to travel forward somewhere in the vicinity of home plate and the back pain it caused would be excruciating.
The strikes hurt as much as the balls, sometimes more. It hurt to sit down between innings. It hurt to stand up to get back up on the mound. Baseball, the game he had loved since his childhood days in Miami, was tortuous. He compared the sensation to having a “knife poking in your back.”
Rodriguez never wasted a pitch and worked with a quick tempo because it was the only way he could survive.
“When I got the opportunity to pitch, it was to the point where I was throwing through the pain and I would have to almost hurt my back for me to maintain it because it would kind of numb out,” Rodriguez said. “Every time I went back out [after each inning], I knew the first warmup pitch was going to be the worst pitch possible, because it was either going to be 30 feet over the catcher, or 30 feet into the ground because it hurt that bad.”
Rodriguez’s pain has been replaced with jubilation. On Tuesday, the club’s No. 6 prospect dazzled in his debut, striking out both batters that he faced, including Reds first baseman Joey Votto. He touched 98 mph.
The 22-year-old right-hander has thrown just 9 1/3 professional innings since 2017 because of his back issues. He missed all of '18 and had back surgery in May of '19. He was healthy enough to pitch at the club’s alternate site in 2020, quite a step up from Class A Advanced Inland Empire, where he pitched in ‘19.
Rodriguez estimates he threw 70 innings in 2020.
“I didn't get full season in, but I still got those innings in and I still was able to learn a lot and learn how to pitch sequence, and things I didn't know before,” Rodriguez said. “It's almost like in the time out, I was able to learn the mental aspect of the game, which has been phenomenal.”
Where Rodriguez goes from here is to be determined. Will he be a starter or a reliever? What we know is that he is on track to pitch another Cactus League game soon and that it’s still too early to tell if he will make his big league debut in 2021. What’s also certain is the Angels want to keep him on the field.
“That's who he is. That's what he's capable of,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “We just got to keep him healthy and not treat him to the point where you overly protect him. You got to get him out there and play, but just be somewhat smart about it.”
As for Rodriguez, he just wants to continue to be pain-free and contribute.
So far, so good.
“Whatever they tell me to do, if they want me to come out of the 'pen or if they want me to be a starter, whatever it is, I'm going to do it,” he said. “I just want the team to win. I want to get us to the playoffs.”
In all, he was charged with two runs on three hits in two innings in the 37-pitch outing. He struck out five. But the numbers only tell part of the story as Canning looked confident and showed good command. He’s right where he wants to be with the regular season starting in less than a month.
“I feel like I'll have that slider most of the time, so I know I have that in my back pocket,” Canning said. “So I was just trying to work some cutters today and then some fastballs at the top of the zone. Once you get out there, you are just competing and trying to be aggressive.”
Canning retired D-backs leadoff hitter Josh Rojas to start the bottom of the first. Center fielder Ketel Marte followed with a double and scored on a single by left fielder David Peralta for Arizona’s first run. Canning recovered to strike out three in a row before giving up a solo home run to right fielder Trayce Thompson with one out in the second frame.
Undaunted, Canning struck out designated hitter Domingo Leyba and first baseman Wyatt Mathisen for the final two outs of the inning.
"He's throwing the ball extremely well," Maddon said of Canning. "He gave up a home run. Big deal. I thought he looked really good, sharp. He felt good about it after he got done. Just keep building off that. All of his pitches, to me, looked really good from the side. His velocity was solid and he felt good about himself, so I was pretty happy."
Wise back with Angels
Interim pitching coach Matt Wise returned to the team Thursday after dealing with COVID-19.
“He’s still struggling with strength levels and he did lose some weight, but he's doing well,” Maddon said. “And he's very excited to be back. I just spoke to him a couple minutes ago. There was absolutely some impact on him. He felt it, but he fought through it pretty well.”