Grayson Rodriguez’s last swing as a senior at Central Heights High School in Nacogdoches, Tx. resulted in a home run in a game that his team was losing by a huge margin. The opposing pitcher was working on a perfect game. The details remain fresh in his mind.
They also bring a smile years later, as he marvels at Shohei Ohtani’s dominance on the mound and at the plate with the Los Angeles Angels. A two-way All-Star player who intrigues Rodriguez, an accomplished prep hitter whose days holding a bat in his hands are far behind him.
The Orioles are invested in the right arm that could make him a staff ace.
Rodriguez will do more than face Ohtani tonight when the Angels visit Camden Yards. They’re also the game’s starting pitchers.
“That’s going to feel like the big leagues for sure,” Rodriguez said yesterday. “Obviously, seeing somebody like that, of that caliber who’s arguably the face of baseball right now. It’s going to be pretty different to see the guy you’re going against on the mound also step up in the box. I’m pretty ready for that.”
The preparation in pre-series meetings is unique with Ohtani in town.
“It’s going to be pretty crazy, where the pitchers are obviously reading the scouting reports on him hitting, and then our hitters are looking at the scouting reports of him pitching,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to be something different, kind of like a throwback to Little League.”
When the pitcher stands on the mound in a filthy uniform after sliding into bases.
After all, it is a kid’s game.
A pitcher usually downplays the opposing starter, pointing out how he isn’t actually facing the guy. But the narrative changes with Ohtani, the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 2021 and runner-up last summer.
Ohtani has posted a 2.74 ERA and 0.913 WHIP in eight starts, with 66 strikeouts and only 22 hits allowed in 46 innings. He began yesterday slashing .288/.364/.521 with eight doubles, eight home runs and 25 RBIs in 38 games.
The hitting part is Rodriguez’s main concern. He can’t control what Ohtani does as a pitcher.
“It’s definitely going to be different, it’s going to be a new experience,” Rodriguez said. “This is kind of a thing that I’ve really looked forward to since he’s been in the big leagues. Just getting to see him on a baseball field, match up against him, is going to be even better.”
The flashbacks to high school will keep coming to Rodriguez, who heard from the Rockies that they might let him do both if they drafted him in 2018. The Orioles made him the 11th overall selection, a pop-up prospect with high strikeout totals.
Rodriguez was 11-0 with a 0.19 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 76 innings as a senior. He also batted .479 with 10 doubles, nine home runs, 49 RBIs and 45 runs scored, and was named 3A Texas Player of the Year for the 2nd year in a row.
As a junior, Rodriguez posted a .511 average with eight doubles, 11 home runs, 53 RBIs and 44 runs scored. His assessment of his batting skills isn’t bragging. He exhibits pinpoint accuracy.
“I was a good hitter,” he said. “My dad (Gilbert) was a college outfielder, so hitting was always first growing up. It’s something that we always practiced first before pitching. Pitching was something that I started to take seriously later in high school. Really, just the two years before the draft. Hitting was always No. 1 for me.”
Maybe that's why the first baseball cards of Rodriguez showed him as a hitter and had to be sent back.
The itch to switch is gone. Rodriguez is committed to being a starter and nothing else.
“I think it would be tough,” Rodriguez said. “What he’s doing is kind of unprecedented, but it would definitely be fun to try it. But this is the big leagues and there’s a reason why he’s the only one doing it.”
Ohtani has faced the Orioles one time, on Aug. 25, 2021 in Baltimore, and allowed four runs and five hits with seven strikeouts in five innings. Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander homered in the first inning and DJ Stewart in the fourth.
The Angels are 21-20 and in third place in the American League West. The Orioles swept them last year in a four-game series at Camden Yards and went 6-1 overall.
Rodriguez is making his eighth major league start and fourth at home. He earned his first Camden Yards win in his last outing, with a career-high 5 2/3 innings and 101 pitches while allowing two runs against the Rays.