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The magic hasn't worn off

Gulf outfielder Nelson Rodriguez was always known for his glove. Now, after a lot of hard work, he's becoming known for his offense.

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- During the summer, Ridgewood's Dave Hancox and Gulf's Nelson Rodriguez played for the same American Legion team.

Hancox was there when his teammate found a lucky charm -- an Alex Rodriguez baseball card -- and immediately went on a hitting terror.

Hancox was there when Rodriguez found the kind of hitting zone he had struggled to find in three seasons as a high school player.

Hancox was there as Rodriguez clubbed four home runs in his last five games, including one the first day he found the card.

So knowing the time would come when the two had to rejoin their respective high school teams, and considering Hancox would have to pitch against Rodriguez during the prep season, he did the only sensible thing -- he ripped the Alex Rodriguez card to pieces.

The plan didn't exactly work as Rodriguez homered that day, and then against Hancox this year, delivering an RBI single in his only at-bat and later singled in the winning run against the Rams.

By the time Hancox destroyed the card, Rodriguez had already gained the confidence he needed to produce at the plate his senior season.

"That was his breakout summer," Gulf coach Shaun Weimer said. "It was there he gained the confidence he needed."

Though he joined the team late because he was a starter on the basketball team, the speedy Rodriguez is finally living up to the potential those around him have seen for years. He is batting .333 in five games with 5 steals, 2 doubles and 4 RBI.

"I knew coming into my senior season I had to get better with the stick," Rodriguez said. "I didn't want to be known as the guy that can run and cover the field but can't hit."

But he was.

After a great junior varsity season as a freshman, Rodriguez was called up to varsity. As a sophomore, he made the team and started in centerfield. Last year, he was expected to emerge as a star but stalled.

In each of those first three seasons, Rodriguez was a defensive commodity. More often that not, he was the player the designated hitter batted for. All glove, no hit.

"That was frustrating," Rodriguez said. "I tried to keep my head up but it was hard looking at the lineup and seeing that you were being DHed for instead of the pitcher."

Rodriguez's problem was not all that uncommon: "I couldn't hit the curveball."

Former Gulf coach Phil Bell worked tirelessly with Rodriguez, but mostly to little avail.

"I said last year he did the best job of any outfielder in the conference," Bell said. "He goes and gets it in the outfield and has a great arm and can run. But hitting the off-speed pitch and laying off bad off-speed pitches was his problem ... he would take a fastball and want to make up for it so bad he'd go after an off-speed pitch and come out of his shoes."

Rodriguez knew this. Every night, he watched every one of his swings through the viewfinder of his camcorder, not even waiting to get home and put the tape in the VCR. He searched for a hole, twitches, mechanical errors, and then came out every day working to eliminate them.

Toward the end of last year, he began to stroke the ball with more authority. That carried over into an outstanding summer, and with some additional work by Weimer, Rodriguez thinks he has turned the corner.

"We tried to spread him a little more and make him rely on his hands and hips," Weimer said. "He just needed to be more quiet in the box. There was a lot of wasted movement with the lower body. He's quieter now, more balanced and in more of an attacking position."

Bell says "the sky's the limit for the kid." Weimer has high praise for his centerfielder, calling him a five-tool player. Both agree he could and should play at the next level.

"He's got the tools," Weimer said. "The colleges know that. Now they sit back and wait for the players to put numbers up. That's the bottom line for Nelson. It's his time to shine."

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