It was Cal baseball’s most historic play and one of the most memorable in any Cal sport.
But for all the incredible memories Devon Rodriguez provided with his walk-off, two-run single that sent the Bears to the NCAA Super Regionals in 2011, the play itself seems like eons ago for the Bears’ redshirt senior.
Cal fans will forever remember Rodriguez’s liner into right field that plated two runs and capped a four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning for a 9-8 victory over Baylor on June 5, 2011. With radio announcer Danny Freisinger screaming in excitement up in the booth, the Bears celebrated on the field at Rice University before continuing their storybook season that ended in the College World Series.
Rodriguez and the Bears were on the high of highs. But what soon followed were two nightmarish years for Rodriguez, a time of his life and career he hopes to start putting in the rearview mirror Friday night when Cal opens the 2014 season against Texas at Evans Diamond.
“It’s been a rough road,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez was part of a strong returning nucleus in 2012 that had head coach David Esquer optimistic his program could make a return trip to Omaha. But on a rainy day of practice before the start of the season, Rodriguez made a diving attempt at a ball and came down hard on the ground. He suffered a knee injury that originally was supposed to keep him out of action 4-6 weeks. But during his rehabilitation, he developed a blood clot. He got into just four games before being forced to shut it down for the season.
“It was one of the most serious things I’ve ever dealt with,” Rodriguez said. “I had heard of blood clots but I didn’t really know the significance of them. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t get hit by anything. That kind of put everything in perspective. Now I don’t really take it for granted. Every day that goes by I try to live to the fullest. Every time I’m on the field could be my last time.”
Rodriguez recovered and was playing as well as he had in his entire career that next fall, according to Esquer. But during the Bears’ final scrimmage before the spring, Rodriguez injured his shoulder sliding back into first base as a ball was thrown in behind him from the outfield.
“I knew as soon as it happened something was wrong,” Rodriguez said. “I couldn’t even get up off the ground.”
Rodriguez probably should have had surgery, but that would have put him out again for an extended period of time. He had enough of sitting out. He decided that his team needed him too badly and elected to play the entire season through the pain.
“He played on one arm essentially, because of his loyalty to the team,” Esquer said. “You’d see him swing and miss and he would wince in pain. He’d have to go days without taking batting practice just to make sure he could make it to the weekend and play in the game. At the end of the year, I just said thank you.”
Despite his physical limitations last season, Rodriguez was still productive. He batted .277, was ninth in the Pac-12 with seven home runs and had 40 RBI. But everyone watching knew he wasn’t himself.
“We needed him last year, and he knew that,” said center fielder Derek Campbell, who missed most of 2013 with a broken leg. “He did everything in his power. It took a lot out of him, both mentally and physically. I really look up to him for that. I could see from the bench he was hurting.”
Rodriguez had shoulder surgery shortly after the end of last season. After missing fall ball to rehab, he is almost back at full strength as the start of the 2014 campaign looms.
“I finally feel normal,” Rodriguez said. “I know people are going to be doubting me, coming off injuries. That’s where it’s fun. Just prove people wrong and have some fun out there. I’m finally healthy and feeling good. I just can’t wait to step in the box for the first time against the University of Texas under the lights. It doesn’t get much better than that.”