West Virginia Power manager David Berg couldn’t tell the difference from the Julio Rodriguez who took the field before heading to the injured list April 16 and the one who ran back onto the field for the first time since then on Monday. The smile on Rodriguez’ face looked the same then as it does now.
“He’s always happy,” Berg said.
But Rodriguez’ smile has a little more shine to it these days. That comes with the feeling of relief in returning to the diamond after nearly two months away. Now the 18-year-old wants to continue the strong season he was enjoying when he got hurt.
“Enjoy” is a key word in the outfielder’s vocabulary.
“It’s the best feeling, being with my team again and playing in front of this crowd,” Rodriguez said before Tuesday’s game at Appalachian Power Park against Delmarva. “It’s the best feeling I’ve felt since I’ve gotten hurt. Nothing makes me happier than to play again with my teammates.”
A hairline fracture in his left hand was the culprit in putting Rodriguez on the shelf. That pressed the pause button on the first season in Class A for the player considered by MLB.com as the No. 5 overall prospect in the Seattle Mariners system. It was the first time Rodriguez had to deal with an injury of that magnitude during a season.
“This one was frustrating at first,” he said. “I was doing really good. I really wanted to be with my team. They helped me through a rough time.
“Then I thought, I have to get better as soon as possible to come back and help them.”
He attacked rehabilitation in hopes of returning to the lineup as soon as possible. He performed exercises to increase blood flow to the hand to speed up healing. He moved to squeezing exercises to re-establish the strength in that hand.
Meanwhile, he did everything he could to remain in game shape. He was fitted with a splint that allowed him to continue conditioning. He would still take swings in the cage, but would do so with just his right hand. Sometimes he would begin in his stance with both hands on the bat, then put his left hand to his chest and swing through with his right.
The work paid off. In his first game back Monday, Rodriguez went 1 for 2 with a double and two walks. In the 10 games he has played this year for the Power, he is batting .364 with three RBIs and four doubles.
“He missed almost two months and it looked like he hadn’t missed a beat,” Berg said. “That’s just a credit to him and how good he is. He’s obviously better than a lot of people. Every time we go out on the field, he’s probably the best player. There’s not many better than him.
“It’s like when [Jared] Kelenic was here,” he added. “The tools are … everybody knows. They’re just better.”
In missing nearly two months, Rodriguez has missed out on some opportunities. He would have loved to have joined Power catcher Jake Anchia and pitchers Clay Chandler, Bryan Pall and Dayeison Arias on the North Division roster of Tuesday’s South Atlanic League All-Star Game at Appalachian Power Park. He would have loved to have joined former Power players Kelenic and pitcher Logan Gilbert as those who already have been promoted to advanced Class A Modesto.
Yet Rodriguez won’t dwell on it. He won’t grumble or feel sorry for himself. He’s taking a much sunnier approach.
“Now I use that as motivation,” Rodriguez said. “They’re up there and I want to join them up there.”