Championship Pedigree

By Keaton Cory / Modesto Nuts | May 10, 2018 7:57 PM

When one of the Rizzo's guests kicked the cord out of the television in their garage just after the 47th pick of the 2016 MLB draft, the mad dash for the living room TV proved to be a dramatic omen. Before Joe Rizzo hit .538 in the 2017 California League Championship Series, he was crammed in his living room celebrating the Mariners' decision to make him their second round selection. Just a year later Joe Rizzo had two professional championships and an MVP trophy.

"I got a call probably two picks before that I was going to the Mariners. It was all said and done. We were in my garage so we could have [our draft party] outside," Rizzo recalls. "Somebody walked by and kicked the wire and the prong came flying out so that TV actually shutdown outside. Everyone had to book it inside to end up watching and we barely made it. It was definitely a little more cramped, but I kind of liked it that way."

After the drama of draft day, Rizzo turned down his offer to play at the University of South Carolina, to go pro and head out to the Arizona League. He immediately started with the on-field dramatics. In his first professional game he earned his first professional hit when he banged a line drive off the centerfield wall hard enough to scamper around the bases for an inside-the-park home run.

Later that summer his AZL squad sliced through the postseason going 4-0 on their way to the championship. Just three months removed from the draft day dash to the living room, Rizzo's resume was starting to take shape.

In 2017, Rizzo started the year with the Clinton LumberKings. Starting with the full-season club a month after his 19th birthday was an aggressive assignment. He was the youngest player on the roster and three years younger than the average age of the league. He got off to a hot start batting .281 through May. At the end of August, Rizzo's season appeared to be winding down with the LumberKings falling shy of a Midwest League playoff berth. Then the Nuts' starting shortstop Rayder Ascanio was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Mike Leake on August 30th. Rizzo was sent to Modesto to take Ascanio's roster spot and entered the starting lineup a day later. He went 4-for-12 in the last three games of the season to help the Nuts sure up home field advantage throughout the 2017 playoffs.

The Nuts carved up the California League postseason. They went 6-0 to earn the first Nuts' title and the ninth California League Championship in Modesto's history. For those of you keeping track, that puts Rizzo at 10-0 all-time in professional postseason games.

"The one thing that stuck with me was how much of a unit we played as. It wasn't one guy doing everything. It was everyone doing their own part," Rizzo says of the championship run. "Our pitchers were all getting outs, throwing strikes, doing everything they could to keep us in ball games while our offense was putting up big numbers."

In the six postseason games it took to win the Division Series and the Championship Series, the Nuts outscored their opponents 52-22. While Rizzo earned the Championship Series MVP honor for going 7-for-13 with a home run and four RBI, the entire offense was clicking. All ten players that received an at-bat drove in at least one run and seven players had at least five RBI throughout the postseason.

After playing in just five regular season games with the Nuts in 2017, Rizzo returns to the Central Valley as the fifth youngest player to be on an Opening Day roster in the California League. He continued to build his California resume right away by driving in the walk-off winning run twice during the season's first homestand.

While the highlights have been fun, Rizzo's ultimate goal is still many steps up the road in Seattle. After the Rockies sent a number of stars such as Troy Tulowitzki, Nolan Arenado, and Trevor Story through the left side of John Thurman Field's diamond, Rizzo is working to contribute to the early chapters of the Mariners' history here. In order to do that, Rizzo has put the hard work in behind the surface flash.

"Something that I have been told a lot of my life is that everyone likes how I swing it. The one thing that they were saying [before I was drafted] was that they weren't sure whether or not I was going to stick at third or go to left or move to second. They weren't sure about my glove, so that has been my big emphasis for the last few years," explained Rizzo of his current focus. "I think I've come a long way with it since my senior year of high school. I think I've improved defensively. One of the biggest things I've done is work on my feet and using my angles over at third base."

While both fair-weather and die-hard Nuts fans can enjoy Rizzo's big dramatics during 2018, the most loyal citizens of Nuts Nation will also be focused on the subtle angles and incremental improvements of Rizzo's defense. It only took the Virginia native a month's worth of games in the California League to leave his mark in the Nuts' history books. What can he do for Nuts fans given an entire summer's worth of games?

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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