Sunday, March 2, 2008

By Victor Varadi, Contributor

Darin Erstad settled under a deep fly ball to center field and closed his glove around the last out of the 2002 World Series. Pandemonium ensued. The Angels were Champions of baseball. Tim Salmon paraded around the stadium with gene Autry’s famous Stetson and Troy Glaus hoisted the MVP trophy. But none of that would have been possible had it not been for a young pitching phenom from Venezuela.

Francisco Rodriguez, nicknamed K-Rod that same October for striking out more than a batter an inning, was a mid-September call-up to an Angels bullpen riddled with injuries. Rodriguez gave the Angels a glimpse of what he would soon do on the world stage. In fewer than 6 innings of regular season play, Rodriguez gave up 2 hits and struck out 13.

The Angels faced the New York Yankees in the ALDS. In Game 2 in New York, Rodriguez earned his first career win as a Major League pitcher. While he was also credited with the blown save, he’d pitched two effective innings for a much needed victory that tied the short series at one game a piece. The Angels would win the next two games and take the series. “Franky” officially became K-Rod. In 3.2 innings, Rodriguez struck out seven, and in the crucial third game, he got the win by holding a powerful Yankees line-up down while the Angels recovered from an early five run deficit.

After the Angels blew through the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS, they would meet the San Francisco Giants, led by Barry Bonds, in the World Series. In almost nine innings of work, Rodriguez was downright electric; he fanned 13 and walked one. In a crucial Game 2, Rodriguez pitched three scoreless innings and struck out four. The Giants batters were simply over matched by K-Rod’s fastball-slider combo and the Angels would win that seesaw battle, 11-10. It was the Angels first World Series game victory, and Rodriguez was credited with the win.

Rodriguez piled up 28 strikeouts in just more than 18 innings of playoff work; he was the youngest pitcher in 32 years to pitch in a World Series game and at 20 years old was the youngest ever to win one.

The young Venezuelan entered the playoffs as nondescript Francisco Rodriguez and emerged from them a bona-fide star known as K-Rod.
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