ST. LOUIS — Even factoring in the nuisance created by a pesky nail on the dugout steps, it has been a fantastic first week in the major leagues for John Rodriguez.
Not long ago, he was a face in the minor league crowd, and at 27 an aging one at that. Now, he’s a daily, productive fixture in the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup, to the extent that manager Tony La Russa held off completing his lineup card on Sunday until Rodriguez, who missed his first start because of a sprained ankle caused when his cleats got snagged by the nail, could test the injury.
Right now, La Russa’s injury-ravaged roster can really use a run like the left-handed hitting Rodriguez, an undrafted, forgotten outfielder no more, has put together. With three players on the 15-day disabled list and right fielder Larry Walker also sidelined with a recurrence of a season-long neck injury, the timing has been perfect for this unlikely success story.
“He’s given us a real lift,” La Russa said.
Rodriguez hit in his first six starts, and hit with authority, going 8-for-21 with two home runs and three RBIs. He hit a home run off Ben Sheets and Carlos Zambrano and doubled twice in his last start on Saturday against the Cubs’ Jerome Williams before leaving because of the injury.
Pinch hitting on Sunday, Rodriguez nearly added to the legend with a drive that landed in the right field seats just a few feet foul. He’s also played well in the field, running down a handful of balls at the warning track in left.
The player who goes by J-Rod earned his shot with an unreal month in the minors, piling up 17 home runs and 47 RBIs in only 34 games for Triple-A Memphis, including four grand slams.
“He was doing things I’d never seen before,” said Scott Seabol, who was also in the minors when Rodriguez made his mark and is with the Cardinals now. “Unbelievable.”
Rodriguez got his chance in the St. Louis organization because the Indians needed minor league catching help and the Cardinals had a glut at the position after players returned from an early season rash of injuries. He has had some good years in the minors, but nothing eye-popping with a 22-home run season in 2001 at the Yankees’ Double-A level his top production.
“I’ve never had a power burst like that,” Rodriguez said. “To get 17 in one month, wow! I was hitting fastballs, changeups, curveballs, sliders, I was just feeling good. It felt real good.”
Rodriguez, who is from New York, felt he never got much of a chance in the Yankees’ organization.
“I knew it was probably a lose-lose situation, but I was going out there auditioning for 30 other teams,” he said. “For some reason or another I knew I’d have my chances, and here I am. I made it.”
The Cardinals had been interested in signing him as a minor league free agent in the offseason, but he signed with the Indians instead. Rodriguez was hitting a pedestrian .247 with five home runs and 23 RBIs in 46 games with Triple-A Buffalo when the Cardinals acquired him in a June 9 minor league trade for catcher Javier Cordona.
“Johnny Rodriguez is a guy we knew about a year ago,” assistant general manager John Mozeliak said. “Did we know he’d have this kind of impact? No. But we saw him as an offensive guy who was solid defensively, and statistics-wise, he was on fire when we brought him up.”
The fire isn’t out yet. After the Cardinals’ day off on Monday, Rodriguez was hopeful of returning to the lineup in San Diego on Tuesday when the Cardinals began a six-game trip. He has more than filled the void left when Reggie Sanders broke his leg in an outfield collision Jim Edmonds, an injury that is expected to sideline him at least another month.
Rodriguez’ first day with the Cardinals, one player double-checked the name of his new teammate with a reporter before introducing himself. Everybody knows who Rodriguez, or J-Rod for short, is now.
“I just try my best and go out there and play hard,” Rodriguez said. “That’s all I can do.”