Tim Rodriguez had high hopes that this would be a special season for the Marist High School baseball team. After all, Rodriguez had paid his dues for three years, watching the Royal Knights continue to improve during that time. As a senior shortstop, Rodriguez believed that he would save his best for last.
“I definitely had hopes, but I didn’t want to have any expectations,” Rodriguez said. “We had some good years, but if we came in this year and expected things were just going to happen, then it wouldn’t happen. I hoped we would do well and I hoped to be a part of it.”
However, after the first two games of the season, Rodriguez found himself in an unfamiliar situation. He was on the bench.
“We had a lot of kids who were competing for playing time,” Marist head coach Ron Hayward said. “I was playing who I felt deserved to play that day.”
Needless to say, Rodriguez was upset.
“It was really frustrating, because I felt I couldn’t do much for the team while on the bench,” Rodriguez said. “I had no pull in contributing. I was very frustrated. I didn’t have a lot of people who understood, but my teammates were there for me.”
Rodriguez stayed with the game, despite his frustrations.
“I knew that I had to show Coach Hayward that I deserved to play,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted him to know that he could trust me to get the job done if he gave me the chance to play. That was my main focus.”
Hayward was impressed with his senior’s determination.
“He could have walked away, but he turned out to be the biggest cheerleader,” Hayward said. “I challenged him a lot over the years, but this was the biggest challenge.”
Midway through the season, Hayward gave Rodriguez a chance to play, but this time, it was in right field.
“It was actually weird at first,” Rodriguez said. “I’m really not a fan of the outfield. I felt uncomfortable out there. But since there was no pressure on me in right field, I sort of felt at home. That’s why it was weird. It’s weird how the game of baseball works.”
Rodriguez eventually found a home for the Royal Knights in right field. He played there through the great run in capturing the Ed Ford Memorial Hudson County Baseball Tournament and remained in right as the NJSIAA Non-Public B state playoffs began.
It was Rodriguez who gained the game-winning RBI against Sacred Heart of Vineland to capture the Non-Public B South sectional championship, by getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh inning, giving the Royal Knights a 2-1 win and the school’s first state sectional championship since 1993.
As the Royal Knights faced Newark Academy for the overall Non-Public B state title last week in Toms River, they fell behind a few times, trailing 7-3 in the fifth inning and then 10-7 heading into the bottom of the seventh.
Rodriguez felt awful about his play in right field in the top of the seventh, when Newark Academy scored three runs to take the 10-7 lead.
“To be honest, I was really frustrated with myself,” Rodriguez said. “I made a throwing error in the inning that was way off target and led to two runs scoring. I really thought that I cost the team the game.”
But the Royal Knights had come from behind several times during the season. They came from a five-run deficit to defeat St. Peter’s Prep in the county tournament title game. They came from behind twice in the state playoffs.
“I told myself that we should just go,” Hayward said. “If we lose, then we should lose going hard. And if we do come back, it would be the greatest story of all. Some of the kids were down, but I still knew something could happen.”
Rodriguez just wanted redemption.
“I came back to the dugout and as soon as I walked into the dugout, my teammates were there, encouraging me,” Rodriguez said. “The underclassmen were actually telling me to keep my head up. They made me realize that we still had a shot to win.”
It might have taken a minor miracle, needing three runs to tie and four runs to win in the bottom of the last inning. But the Royal Knights believed and Rodriguez wanted the chance to deliver.
“It crossed my mind that every time it came down to the wire, a senior always found a way to get the job done,” Rodriguez said. “After what happened in the top of the seventh, I just wanted my chance.”
The Royal Knights strung together a few hits and scored two runs to get to within a run at 10-9. The tying run scored on a balk, of all things.
“We scored three runs,” Hayward said. “I wasn’t worried about getting the last one.”
Up stepped the most unlikely hero. With two strikes, Rodriguez lofted a soft liner to right-center field, right over the reach of the second baseman. Jordan Diaz raced home with the game-winning run. Marist had the improbable 11-10 victory, winning its first overall state title since 1991. And Rodriguez, the kid who was benched earlier in the season, turned out to be the one to knock in the game-winning run in both of the last two games of the season.
For his efforts, Rodriguez has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the last week. Rodriguez is also the final honoree for the 2011-2012 scholastic sports season. The Hudson Reporter Male and Female Athletes of the Year will be presented in the coming weeks.
Hayward still cannot fathom the idea that his team won both the county and state titles in what truly was a dream season.
“It was crazy and it’s still crazy,” said Hayward, who is an alumnus of Marist and was just named as the school’s athletic director as well. “I really felt like I was dreaming, like it didn’t happen. I think it shows the kind of kids we have, that these kids never gave up. They know how to survive.”
And as for the unlikely hero?
“It’s the reason why I love the game of baseball,” Hayward said. “Here’s a guy who was doing nothing driving in the two biggest runs of the season. He’s not a star. He’s just a kid who kept his head and played hard. I love the way he kept it up and stayed with it. It’s a great story.”
Rodriguez knows that he will hold a special place in Marist folklore. He’s the one who delivered the state title, much like former Major League Baseball star Joe Borowski did at Marist in 1989. Rodriguez is in the same class.
“It feels real good,” Rodriguez said. “As much as I was the one who got the last hit, it was a team effort. We all did it. My teammates were the ones who made sure I kept my head up. I’ll never forget that.”
Rodriguez is headed to Iona College in the fall. He hopes to walk on to the baseball team there. If he doesn’t make it at Iona, he will always have his final hit to hold on to, a hit to last a lifetime. – Jim Hague.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.