Shoulder surgery cost Tampa Bay Rays prospect Wilking Rodriguez more than half of last season, but you wouldn't know that from looking at his most recent pitching line.
Coming off consecutive rocky outings, the right-hander bounced back with his strongest start of the year, erasing questions of whether his promotion to the Florida State League had come too soon.
Rodriguez scattered two hits and a walk while fanning four batters over a season-high six scoreless innings Wednesday in the Class A Advanced Charlotte Stone Crabs' 4-3 loss to the Bradenton Marauders.
"He was phenomenal," pitching coach Steve Watson said. "He threw 70 pitches and he was really in command. He faced 19 hitters and he was ahead in the count on 14 of them."
Rodriguez worked a 1-2-3 first inning and he rolled a ground-ball double play to erase Alex Dickerson's leadoff walk in the second. After surrendering a leadoff double to Justin Howard to start the third, the Venezuela native then set down the next seven batters before Mel Rojas ripped a two-bagger to center field and then got doubled off base in the fifth.
A pair of ground balls and a fourth strikeout saw Rodriguez face the minimum in the sixth, and he left the game with a 1-0 lead.
Watson said it was just what the Rays' No. 20 prospect needed to get back on track.
"It is good for his confidence and it is good for his work habits. He's a hard worker and it pays dividends and adds to the motivation," Watson said. "The potential is there. If in the next four weeks he makes as big strides as he has done in the past four-and-a-half weeks, who knows where he will be by the All-Star break.
"His fastball is his main pitch, but his secondary pitches -- both his changeup and curveball -- have shown great improvement over the last three starts and his cutter is a work in progress. We have been doing some stuff to offset the ball in his hands and then back it up with the fastball."
The 22-year-old had allowed 12 runs -- 11 earned -- over 8 2/3 innings in his previous starts, and he had pitched into the sixth in just one of his first four appearances.
The 6-foot-1 farmhand entered Wednesday's game with a 6.63 ERA, an 0-3 record and almost as many walks (nine) as strikeouts (12). While he wasn't able to earn his first Florida State League victory, he did accomplish a number of other positive things. He lowered his ERA by more than 1.5 runs to 5.04, he walked just one batter -- a season best -- and he did not allow a home run for the first time in three outings.
Signed as a non-drafted free agent prior to the '07 season, the Rays converted the right-hander from a reliever to a starting pitcher during 2008.
Rodriguez posted a 5-16 record across two levels between short-season Princeton and Class A Bowling Green from 2009-'10, but shoulder surgery on his throwing arm in the offseason saw the former Midwest League midseason All-Star miss the start of the 2011 campaign and appear in just 11 games in total.
"He has made all of his starts and he does all of his sideline work. He is as strong as he could be, so I have no reservations of a setback," Watson said.
"I think he has handled [the move to the Florida State League] extremely well considering he did not get a lot of innings in last year. He needs to build on what he did tonight, which is command his fastball and not pitch himself into trouble by pitching deep into counts -- 3-1 or 3-2 -- and pitching to contact earlier in the count."
On Wednesday, Charlotte catcher Mayo Acosta was 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles and two RBIs, and center fielder Ty Morrison and third baseman Riccio Torrez also recorded two hits in the losing effort. Jim Patterson (2-2) allowed one run on two hits and two walks over the final two frames to take the loss.
Bradenton starter Tyler Waldron allowed a run on four hits and a walk over six innings. He struck out four batters and did not factor in the decision. Zach Foster (1-1) earned the win after striking out one batter over a perfect 11th inning, and third baseman Stefan Welch hit a three-run homer -- his seventh longball -- in the triumph.