ANAHEIM -- The Angels may have found the electric pitcher they’ve been desperately looking for over the last several years.
Rookie right-hander Chris Rodriguez wowed in his Major League debut against the White Sox on Friday, throwing two scoreless innings in relief. The crowd at Angel Stadium was into his every pitch, as he helped keep the Angels in the game with his strong performance in an eventual 12-8 loss. He became the first Angels Draft pick to work at least two scoreless innings in his Major League debut since Michael Roth on April 13, 2013, and just the 10th Angels reliever with at least three strikeouts in a debut.
“That was special and powerful,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “I didn't know what to expect. I think we learned a lot. He was unaffected. He just opens a whole relief pitcher’s Pandora’s box. Bully for him.”
Incredibly, Rodriguez did it despite the fact he’d never pitched above Class A Advanced in his career and had thrown only 9 1/3 professional innings since 2019 due to recurring back issues. But Rodriguez pitched well at the alternate training site last year and impressed the coaching staff with a strong Spring Training, earning a surprise role in the bullpen.
The Miami native had his parents and his girlfriend in attendance for his debut, but said he was so locked in, he doesn’t remember much outside of hearing his entrance music of the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly With His Song” before getting to the mound.
"Honestly, it was nothing I've ever felt before,” Rodriguez said. “When I exited the gate, I completely blacked out. And when I got out of the inning and heard the fans scream, there was no better feeling."
Rodriguez, ranked as the club's No. 4 prospect by MLB Pipeline, proved he wasn’t intimidated by a strong lineup like Chicago’s. He came in with one out in the fifth in a critical stage as the Angels were trying to rally back from an early 7-1 deficit after Andrew Heaney surrendered seven runs over three-plus innings.
The 22-year-old’s first matchup was a memorable one, as he struck out Yoán Moncada on three pitches, eliciting roars from the Angels faithful. The sequence was an 83-mph slider taken for a strike and another 85-mph slider taken for strike two, before striking out Moncada swinging on a 97.1-mph sinker off the plate.
After inducing a groundout from Andrew Vaughn to end the inning, the Angels came back with two runs in the bottom of the fifth to make it a one-run game. Manager Joe Maddon stuck with Rodriguez for the sixth and it paid off, as the right-hander pitched around a two-out single from Yermín Mercedes, striking out Nick Madrigal looking on a 98-mph sinker just off the plate but ruled a strike thanks to Max Stassi's pitch-framing.
"I trusted Stassi back there," Rodriguez said. "He's the man when it comes to calling pitches, so I trusted whatever he put down."
Rodriguez was left in for the seventh and got Tim Anderson to ground out, but he surrendered a single to Luis Robert and issued a four-pitch walk to José Abreu, who smacked a grand slam off Heaney in the third. Rodriguez was removed for Mike Mayers, who was able to get out of the jam.
“It’s fantastic I could show my stuff and compete,” Rodriguez said. “I just have to thank God that I’m healthy. I’m happy I got more than one inning. I was out for two years so any time I get on the mound, I want to take advantage of it.”
Rodriguez’s stuff was nasty -- he threw 27 pitches and his fastball averaged 96.6 mph to go along with his wipeout slider. The Angels plan to be cautious with him going forward because of his injury history, but it’s clear he has the stuff to get big league hitters out despite his lack of experience.
He could also still transition to starting again this season, but Maddon said they are still trying to figure out the best way to utilize the talented right-hander. For now, he’s likely to remain in more of a long relief role and isn’t expected to be available again until Monday. But Rodriguez looks like a weapon that Maddon can use at his disposal this season and beyond.
“The first month you learn your guys,” Maddon said. “We lost the game, but a lot of interesting things occurred. It gives us stuff to think about going forward."