Photo: Perfect Game

Rodriguez provides plenty of pop

Jeff Dahn

Published: Sunday, July 17, 2011

FORT MYERS, Fla. – In his first at-bat in the Perfect Game 18u BCS Finals at Terry Park Sunday morning, big Nelson Rodriguez got a pitch he could drive. And drive it he did.

Rodriguez, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound slugger from New York City playing for Team Citius at this tournament, lined the ball straight-away and over the head of the Florida Bombers’ center fielder, who was racing back toward the wall. The fielder finally picked the ball up near the base of the wall, 412-feet away.

Rodriguez was on the move, and his Team Citius teammates were encouraging him to go for an inside-the-park home run. He ultimately settled for a triple.

“I was just going for three,” Rodriguez said after Team Citius had stowed away a 9-1 win over the Bombers.

As a regular hitter of home runs, Rodriguez gets a lot of practice taking four bases at a time. All the teams are required to use the new BBCOR bats at this week’s 17u and 18u BCS Finals, and Team Citius swung them pretty well in its tournament-opener.

“We’re not used to using metal (bats), we’re used to using wood,” Rodriguez said. “But this turned out to be a good game today using the BBCOR bats, so I think we’re going to do pretty good this tournament.”

Rodriguez will be playing on a pretty big national stage this week at the 44-team 18u BCS Finals. An even larger one awaits about a month from now when he will be playing in the Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings at PETCO Park in San Diego on Aug. 14.

He is one of 42 elite prospects in the high school class of 2012 selected for the prestigious event, formerly known as the Aflac All-American Classic. The Classic benefits the Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego.

“I felt very excited and very happy,” Rodriguez said of learning about his selection to the team. “I’ve been working very hard for this, so I was very happy and exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”

He also said it was going to be “sweet” to play in the Padres’ PETCO Park.

“It is very much of an honor for Nelson,” Team Citius head coach Melvin Perez said.

Perez, a New York-area youth coach, arranged for Rodriguez and five other New York high school prospects to hook-up  with the Team Citius squad playing in the 18u tournament. Team Citius lists Dallas as it home base, but Perez said the organization actually works equally out of Texas, New York and Florida.

“We’re just here to play good baseball and our expectation is to just try and get everybody into college, get everybody to the next level,” Perez said.

Rodriguez has worked under Perez’s guidance since he was 12 or 13 years old.

“He’s always been big and his work ethic is second to none,” Perez said of his star pupil. “He puts in hours at the cages and working behind the plate. He’s never satisfied … so I kind of expected from the get-go that he was going to become the player that he is because of the type of work ethic that he has.”

Perfect Game has known of Rodriguez’s skills – is he a catcher who also plays some first base – and his ability to hit a ball hard ever since he started attending PG events in 2009. PG ranks him the No. 37 top national prospect in the 2012 class.

He raised some eyebrows at the 2011 Perfect Game National Showcase at City of Palms Park last month when hit 12 home runs in the preliminary round and added five more in the finals of the Rawlings Home Run Challenge.

“I felt very good; I felt great,” Rodriguez said June 18, the day of the Challenge’s preliminary round. “This is something like you do in batting practice, a home run derby, so it’s very fun.”

Rodriguez has not made a college commitment yet, but Perez said he is leaning toward Oklahoma. If he decides to become a Sooner, he could be joined in Norman, Okla., by at least three of his Team Citius teammates: outfielder Femelys Sanchez – who is also a teammate of Rodriguez’s at George Washington High School in New York – outfielder and right-hander Enrique Oquendo from Euless, Texas, and left-hander Taylor Hearn from Royce City, Texas. Those three have already committed to Oklahoma.

Team Citius’ Willis Robbins (Columbia), James Norwood (Saint Louis) and Wyatt Mathisen (Texas) have also made Division I commitments. Another top prospect on Team Citius, shortstop/outfielder Andrew Valazquez, remains uncommitted.

Perez said the possibility of Rodriguez getting drafted next spring isn’t talked about a lot, but it is something that could become a reality, especially after appearing in the PG All-American Classic.

“He has an eye on the draft but right now he’s focusing on getting into school,” Perez said. “He’s letting the draft happen; you’ve got to take it one day at a time with the draft.”

Rodriguez will spend the next six days focused on the 18u BCS Finals. After that, he can set his sights on San Diego.

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