hen the summer Wildcat baseball team played the GRPA state tournament in Effingham County last month, the achievement of one player rose above the rest and earned the Cats a number two ranking for the state of Georgia. That player was Raul Rodriguez, and that performance also individually earned him the July Bryan County Co-Athlete of the Month award.
"July was a fun month," said Raul. "It was also a confidence builder. Everything just came together."
Rodriguez was quick to point out some of the other key players on this summer’s Wildcat baseball team whom he believed helped get the team to second place in the state competition. He doted on the pitching talents of Alex Tucker and catching from Cody Rushing.
"Raul knew from the start that he was one of my two hitters, along with Jeremey Goolsby," said summer Wildcat head coach Sean Strickland. "We were going to live or die with them – they both knew that going in.
"In the month of July, Raul came to the plate at the state tournament with purpose and drive and truly delivered," Strickland continued. "To get seven hits in five games, including extra base hits and big hits late in the games, he definitely proved himself at bat. It’s hard to put into words what he did on the bases. If someone on defense didn’t hustle or let their guard down, Raul took advantage of it. That doesn’t happen if you don’t have someone giving 100 percent hustle."
Strickland gave the following example: "On the day of the championship, we were behind in the first game. Raul led off with a hit and got on second base. Then we had a ball hit to the right side of the first baseman and kicked away, and, without me having to say ‘go,go,go’ or waving him on, Raul never broke stride on his way to third. The best way I could describe it like a major league play. He knew to turn and see the ball kicked away and he went for it without hesitation to tie the game. A lesser player without those guts might hesitate and that hesitation costs the team. That kind of all-out hustle – that’s Raul."
Strickland said Raul’s pitching excellence was an unexpected bonus.
"Raul came in and closed the first game of the tournament for us as a pitcher," he said. "He had no idea he was going to pitch that day. I yelled from across the field ‘Raul get ready’. He got ready, he stepped on the mound, he shut ‘em down – he did his job."
When Raul was very young, he was a soccer player. At age 10, he switched to baseball after watching his dad play in a military league. He signed up at the Richmond Hill rec department, coincidentally, with Sean’s father Sandy Strickland as his coach during the very first year of the summer baseball program. Raul has played baseball in both the regular and summer leagues ever since
"One thing that helps Raul is his love of the game," said Raul’s father, Rafael Rodriguez. "Being a military family, he has always found a place to play. We’ve been fortunate enough to mostly remain in Richmond Hill because he loves it here and the coaches here have helped him a lot."
He played at RHHS at the JV level his freshman year, moved to Texas in the tenth grade and returned to RHHS this past season for his varsity debut.
"Raul unfortunately did not get a lot of playing time with us on the varsity level last season, and that’s one of the things (RHHS head baseball Mitchell) Curry and I struggled with as coaches," said Strickland, who is an assistant coach for the varsity team. "He had to sit behind some seniors and he had some injury problems early on, but when a kid is as great as Raul is, you want to get him on the field. He’s the only player I know of in Richmond Hill history who has come in and hit a pinch-hit homerun in a region game. He did that for us this year. He came in against Hepzibah – cold – the first pitch he saw went over the center field fence.
"He never once sulked or complained," Strickland continued. "He just waited for his chance, and he got it this summer. From the first day of the summer league to this GRPA tournament, I saw Raul turn from a good player into a great player. His defense – he worked tirelessly on it. His hitting was top notch. He practiced hard and turned it into a very impressive campaign this summer."
Raul said Strickland has helped him tremendously this summer and has assisted him to become more focused on his game. "I’m more confident now and I can’t wait until next fall and spring," he said.
"I expect Raul to continue to work hard," said Strickland. "I know he’s not going to slow down. He’s got that fire in him; he’s hungry; he wants to get better. This year I really think big things are going to happen with him. Playing defense, pitching and hitting – Raul Rodriguez is going to open some eyes this spring."
Raul is hopeful to be successful enough to lure a college scholarship to continue to play baseball on the college level. If he has it his way, he will enter the pro level as well. His back-up plan is a career in mechanic engineering.
"He has a great work ethic, whether it is playing baseball or his school work," said Rafael. "He’s had straight A’s his whole life and he’s been taking AP classes."
"I hope he stays that way, and I hope all of the goals he has set for himself come true," said Raul’s mother, Nancy Rodriguez. "One thing is for sure – you can’t take baseball away from Raul."