In today’s age of the transfer portal, not every top recruit is pursued and courted by a coach who’s selling the university and its program’s virtues. Sometimes, the player pursues the school.
Technology and good old-fashioned luck sometimes take center stage.
Consider the case of Nick Rodriguez, Missouri State’s new starting shortstop and leadoff hitter. After his stellar freshman season at Charleston Southern ended in the Big South Conference Tournament last May, Rodriguez scanned the ESPN family of channels to watch the NCAA Tournament.
The Collegiate Baseball freshman All-American happened upon Missouri State’s come-from-behind win over Grand Canyon in the Stillwater Regional. Intrigued, he tuned in a day later and saw the Bears put up 14 early runs against Oklahoma State.
Soon after the Bears’ postseason run ended, Rodriguez sent an email to Missouri State associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Joey Hawkins. Seeking a new school after Charleston Southern had a losing record, Rodriguez wanted to know more about Missouri State.
“He had gone in the (transfer) portal after the regional and I was already on the road recruiting at some high school events,” Hawkins said. “He shot me an email saying he saw us play in the regional and that he really liked our brand of baseball.
“We started digging in a little more and thought there were some skills that we thought we could improve upon that he had. We had a little bit of a need in the middle and got him in on a visit. He loved it and the rest was history.”
Shortstop was looking for a winning environment
Rodriguez has been a perfect fit atop the Bears’ lineup. He’s hitting a team-best .369 with four home runs, 13 RBIs and 14 runs scored.
“Thank you, ESPN,” veteran Bears head coach Keith Guttin said of a network that was three years old during his first season as Bears’ coach in 1983. “Obviously we couldn’t see him play in person. He visited and here he is. We’re glad to have him.”
From the time he first contacted Hawkins, distance seemed the only possible roadblock. That and cold weather. Rodriguez is from Tampa, Florida, where baseball games typically aren’t played in 35 degrees and a brisk north wind.
“When I first got on the phone with ‘Hawk’ it was, ‘Wow, that’s far from home. I enjoy being home.’ But after talking to them for a couple of weeks, it was kind of a no-brainer,” Rodriguez said. “I was like, ‘We’re going to come here and we’re going to do something special. I’m going to get better as an individual as well.’
“I wanted to go to a winning environment, where they have a good culture and a winning tradition. This has been better than I ever could have imagined.”
Rodriguez wants to ‘get better in every aspect’
Rodriguez said Hawkins, one of Missouri State’s great defensive shortstops during his career from 2012-15, is making him better in all phases of the game. He’s part of a lineup that ranks among the national leaders in home runs per game (1.86) in the Bears’ 10-5 start.
“I want to get better at everything,” Rodriguez said of his goals. “I can be more locked in mentally. Flush the (bad at-bats). Make the plays in the field. In general, I want to be better in every aspect of the game.
“I think I do a good job in fighting in at-bats and just competing. I’m very competitive, but I think just wanting to get better in every aspect, that is my goal.”
Rodriguez and center fielder Spencer Nivens have been a formidable combo at the top of the Bears’ lineup. Nivens is hitting .350 with six home runs.
“Nick’s been unbelievable,” Nivens said. “He’s pretty much hit since he set foot on campus in the fall and hasn’t looked back. Being behind him, it helps me out, always having a guy on base in front of me. Been doing a great job at leadoff and it makes my job easier in the two-hole.”
Rodriguez adding some power to his bat
Hawkins said Rodriguez is starting to develop some power after hitting only one home run as a freshman at Charleston Southern. He hit a home run in Tuesday’s 11-1 home-field victory over Southeast Missouri State, helping push the Bears’ total to 28 this season.
“From an offensive side of things he has elite contact skills and can pretty much put the bat on anything,” Hawkins said. “When he got here he was more of a singles type of hitter and he hit the ball the other way. I think we’ve really unlocked some power.
“He hits the ball near the top of our team in exit velocity. Despite being smaller in stature, he has good bat speed and can hit the ball hard. That’s really exciting. He takes his walks as well, which is big for a leadoff guy, and defensively he’s played a consistent shortstop so far.
“We like what we’ve got and there’s a lot more in the tank for him, too.”
Bears hit the road before returning to Hammons Field
Missouri State begins a three-city road trip on Wednesday afternoon at Southeast Missouri State. The Bears have a big three-game series this weekend at No. 10 East Carolina and play at Saint Louis University on March 21. They return to Hammons Field to open Missouri Valley Conference play against Evansville on March 24.
Maybe it’ll even warm up by then, which would only make Rodriguez’s experience even more positive.
“It’s been a little cold, but I’ve managed,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “It was hard at first. You just have to keep moving around, keep the blood flowing and stay warm any way you can. Just kind of try not to think about it too much.”