Nivaldo Rodriguez had already been a boon to the Fayetteville pitching staff down the stretch. On Thursday, he put the Woodpeckers a win away from the Carolina League title.
The Astros' No. 26 prospect struck out seven and allowed a run on three hits over six innings as Fayetteville edged Wilmington, 2-1, at SEGRA Stadium to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-5 Mills Cup Finals.
Video: Fayetteville's Rodriguez records the whiff
Rodriguez (1-0) joined the Woodpeckers from Class A Quad Cities in May and did his job both as a starter and out of the bullpen. He made nine starts and nine relief appearances, compiling a 2.74 ERA with 75 strikeouts over 74 innings in the Carolina League. The right-hander was particularly strong in the second half, going 1-2 with a 2.76 ERA and 1.01 WHIP across 45 2/3 frames.
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Although he lost his first postseason start against Down East on Sept. 4, Hernandez bounced back against the Blue Rocks by throwing 55 of 82 pitches for strikes. Fayetteville pitching coach Thomas Whitsett saw that turnaround as a mirror to the growth Rodriguez has shown all season. Early in Thursday's outing, the hurler worked in breaking stuff low in the zone, which allowed him to mix in his splitter later in the game.
"After his last start, it was nice to see him go out there -- he looked a lot more confident," Whitsett said. "He attacked guys from the beginning. He didn't have any free bags today and that was huge for him. And the only hits he gave up were behind in the count. ... He didn't have his best stuff, but it speaks to his character that he was able to locate his pitches.
"To see him go out and have that performance in this setting was really cool for me to see."
The Woodpeckers starter faced four batters over the minimum and outdueled sixth-ranked Royals prospect Kris Bubic (0-1), who allowed two runs on five hits and two walks with eight strikeouts in 5 2/3 frames.
"You're always interested to see how guys respond, especially when a guy goes pitch-to-pitch with you," Whitsett said. "It speaks a lot about [Rodriguez's] maturity. I think you can see what he can do, what kind of player that he is. He's got a drive. He's got a competitive nature. He wants to get outs and he wants to win. And at this point of the season, that's what we're trying to do -- win ballgames. It's a great thing overall for our team and organization, just a great guy to have on your pitching staff."
After a perfect first, Rodriguez was touched for a run in the second when No. 9 Royals prospect MJ Melendez looped an RBI single to center. But the Venezuela native yielded one hit the rest of the way.
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He earned the sixth inning and did not disappoint, starting with back-to-back strikeouts of 15th-ranked Brewer Hicklen and Tyler Hill before getting Kyle Kasser to ground out to first.
Fayetteville took the lead in the bottom half on a two-run double by David Hensley. The Woodpeckers bullpen did the rest with three scoreless frames, as Cesar Rosado fanned three in two perfect innings and Humberto Castellanos worked around a hit in the ninth to earn his second save of the series.
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"The entire season has been great to see what they've accomplished," Whitsett said of his staff. "These guys went out and led the Carolina League in strikeouts, make a run at the end of the season and get hot. You can't go without saying our hitters are unreal and have done a great job at the plate battling, having big-time hits. ... And then to see [the pitchers] come out at the end of games in leverage situations -- big spots -- and locate their stuff and land their off-speed pitches, it's been really cool. As you get to the end, it's really special."
Game 4 is Friday in Fayetteville.