At this time last year, Helmis Rodriguez was still making the transition from the Dominican Summer League to playing in the United States.
Based on his start this year, you’d have to think the 20-year-old Venezuelan has found a comfort zone. Through the season’s first nine games, Rodriguez has been one of few bright spots for Dust Devils starters.
In his first two starts, Rodriguez is 1-0 with a 0.79 ERA, which ranks second among Northwest League starters. In 111⁄3 innings, opposing hitters are batting just .238 against the 5-foot-11 left-hander.
“The way he goes about his business and the effort he puts out on the field — those are things we see every day,” Tri-City manager Drew Saylor said. “More importantly, you see it on and off the field. He’s an upstanding human being. The guys love him and he’s a natural leader.”
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Take away both of Rodriguez’s starts, and Dust Devils’ starters have combined for a 9.23 ERA in 261⁄3 innings.
“It’s tough with young players who do look at (numbers) and derive self worth from that. That’s where the maturation process comes from,” Saylor said. “That’s why it’s so important to have guys like Duane (Espy) and Frank (Gonzales), who can tell them, ‘I’ve been in the game for a long time now, and the things you’re worried about mean absolutely nothing to us.’ ”
What does mean a lot to Gonzales is seeing Rodriguez embrace the opportunities he has as a professional pitcher.
“He’s a guy who’s very competitive. He’s made a jump in strength and ability to repeat over the last year. he’s just gotten better,” Gonzales said. “His work ethic is just oozing, and he’s always doing something to get better.”
Rodriguez allowed his only run during a 4-2 opening day loss in Boise on June 13, but he tossed 51⁄3 strong innings against an explosive lineup that included Kyle Schwarber, the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.
He was flawless in his next start, giving up just four hits over six scoreless innings in an 11-1 win over Everett. Rodriguez threw 57 of his 84 pitches for strikes.
“When you have than many runs, it’s a lot more comfortable,” he said. “If there’s not a lot of runs, you have to keep doing what you’re doing.”
He gets his next start today, going against Eugene’s Adrian De La Horta (0-0, 2.45 ERA).
Gwynn remembered NWL roots: Before he was a Hall of Fame right fielder during a 20-year career with the San Diego Padres, Tony Gwynn started his career in 1981 just down Highway 12 in Walla Walla.
Gwynn, who died after a battle with cancer last Monday, hit .331 over 42 games in Walla Walla, earning a promotion to Double A Amarillo (Texas). He was in the major leagues less than a year later.
After being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, Gwynn talked about his days in Walla Walla during his induction speech in Cooperstown, Ohio.
Dust Devils staying healthy: Tri-City trainer Casey Pappas has his hands full during the first month of the season, helping first-year players clear physicals and walking them through a mountain of paperwork needed to get them on the field.
But Pappas has been impressed with the four players sent to Pasco on rehabilitation assignments.
Three of them — Tyler Gagnon (shoulder), Josh Mueller (Tommy John surgery) and Joel Payamps (shoulder) — are pitchers, and the other is outfielder Mike Tauchman (hamstring).
Gagnon, Mueller and Tauchman have all seen game action and could be sent back up the Rockies’ chain any time soon.
“The guys playing in games, I don’t know about 100 percent, but if they’re playing in games they’re doing well,” Pappas said.
Payamps, a fourth-year pro who spent last year at Grand Junction, just started throwing off a mound last week and should remain in Tri-City for a while longer.
“It varies from case to case,” Pappas said. “All we can do is get them on the field and make sure we’ve done our job.”
w Jack Millikin; 582-1406; email@example.com