EDINBURG — Nico Rodriguez was born to play baseball. As a 3-year-old, Rodriguez would squat in front of his TV when baseball was on as if he were practicing catching for the big leaguers on screen.
“My parents said ever since I was born, I would always get in the squatting position just to watch TV, so I guess I fell in love with the game when I was very little,” Rodriguez said.
Growing up, Rodriguez found a home at the catcher position, a role he loved. But when he entered high school at Edinburg Vela as a freshman, coach Jaime Perez saw his strong arm and made the permanent move to pitcher.
“It was a little shaky at first. I was like, ‘Coach, I’ve never pitched before,’ but I’m glad he made the switch,” Rodriguez said.
After putting together a 12-1 record as a starter, a 0.64 ERA and 121 strikeouts during his senior season, Rodriguez is The Monitor’s All-Area Baseball Pitcher of the Year.
He was thrown into the fire right away as a freshman. A reliever his first two years with the SaberCats, Perez called on Rodriguez to make his debut at home against Sharyland High in Vela’s district opener. The situation: bases loaded, no outs — something Rodriguez grew comfortable with.
“I’ll always remember the first time I ever threw on the Vela mound,” he said. “It was our first district game against Sharyland and it was bases loaded, no outs and Coach Perez said, ‘Put the freshman in.’ I was a little nervous, but I just remember going in there and shutting the game out and winning the game, it was great. He just prepared me for those moments and this year, it really paid off.”
With a 12-1 record, Rodriguez was nearly untouchable against Rio Grande Valley competition. He allowed just a .156 batting average and an on-base percentage of .237 to opponents. His lone loss came in tournament play at the hands of Argyle, a team that went on to win the Class 4A state championship and finish as the No. 2 team in the nation, according to USA Today Sports.
With a fastball in the 90-mph range, a nasty curveball and a changeup that disappears as it enters the strike zone, Rodriguez was equipped with all the tools needed to succeed. His 121 strikeouts was the eighth highest number in all of 6A Texas high school baseball. But that didn’t happen without hard work. He would even beat the coaches to school to get in those early morning workouts.
“He’s truly blessed and he has a lot of talent, but the thing that people don’t see is what goes on behind closed doors, working hard. He would show up at the weight room at five in the morning. He stays after practice to throw. That’s the part that a lot of people don’t see,” said Ronnie Rodriguez, Nico’s father.
Rodriguez is in Manhattan, Kansas, attending Kansas State University on a baseball scholarship. He’s been participating in the Wildcats’ summer workout program, acclimating players for the grind ahead.
Kansas State scouts saw Rodriguez pitch during a summer tournament in Dallas before his senior season and decided to make an offer, which he accepted, accomplishing a childhood dream of pitching in the Big 12.
“I knew there were a couple scouts there but I tried not to focus on that. I had a good outing and they offered me,” he said. “It was a Big 12 school — that played a big role. I always wanted to play Big 12 ball, D-I. Just the atmosphere over there, I just felt at home.”
The UTRGV Vaqueros made a trip to Manhattan for a three-game series against the Wildcats in March of last season. Rodriguez hopes the Wildcats return the favor and play a few games at UTRGV Baseball Stadium in Edinburg this upcoming season, a matchup that would see Rodriguez against former Vela teammates Ramsey Amador and Aaron Galvan.
“I’m hoping since UTRGV played over there last year, I was hoping that Kansas State would come down here so we could play and show out in front of the Valley,” Rodriguez said. “Whatever they need me to do, I’ll do. I’m ready to go in there and compete.”