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Cal Baseball: Devon Rodriguez, Mike Neu, Recruiting Updates

In Part IV of our Q&A with Ryan Gorcey about Cal Baseball, Ryan talks about Devon Rodriguez's status, recent Cal recruiting, and the impact of new pitching coach Mike Neu.

Let's talk about the hero that took Cal to Omaha, Devon Rodriguez.
Let's talk about the hero that took Cal to Omaha, Devon Rodriguez.

I read that Devon Rodriguez has been playing hurt all year long. What was his ailment and will it hinder him next year?

Devon's had a rough two years since his famous walk-off in 2011. In 2012, he banged his knee diving for a ball in a fall scrimmage, which tweaked his PCL. That was bad enough, but then he suffered through several alarming blood clots that were far worse than anyone let on. Because of that, he had to take bloodthinners throughout the year, and that cost him the season. As (bad) luck would have it, Rodriguez once again suffered an injury this past fall, once again diving for a ball up the line. He jammed his right shoulder, and while it didn't seem horrible at the time, in hindsight, it probably should have been operated on.

Rodriguez was put on limited workouts to keep the stress off of his shoulder, and that hurt his overall level of fitness. When the season dawned, though, Rodriguez's shoulder was fairly sound, or so we thought. The muscles had tightened around the joint, from what I understand, making it more stable than it really was. He started off the year hitting .351, but then, after he started playing in the field again, warming up and doing more than just hitting with that shoulder, the muscles loosened up, and no longer held everything where it needed to be. By the end of the year, he had to cheat on pitches a lot more because he didn't have as quick a bottom hand as he had when healthy, and that caused a lot more roll-overs, strikeouts and pop-outs. To his credit, he tinkered with his swing and got it to a point where it was somewhat workable, and he finished the year relatively strong, but without his full power.

He finally got the shoulder cut on in May, and has been rehabbing throughout the summer, finally working out in full. The Rodriguez we saw last year was one who was not allowed to run or do anything particularly physical during practices. He was essentially limited to ball-bucket duty and hitting in the cage, and even that was closely monitored. It drove him nuts. He said he hated being swaddled in bubble wrap, it seemed like, for half the season. Now, he'll finally be able to lift with his upper body, which, combined with his strong lower half, is going to make for some fireworks, if he can avoid another fielding misadventure in the fall.

(Click here for the 2013 Preseason Feature on Devon Rodriguez)

With the Bears being on the chopping block, there was kind of a lost year recruiting-wise. Do you attribute the disappointing result of this past season to that?

Cal succeeded in 2011 because of pitching and defense, and we saw how key pitching is in the postseason with what UCLA did in Omaha this year. Cal is bringing in a class with a ton of arms in Haseltine, Jefferies, Martinez, Schick, Andrew Buckley of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, and two-way stud Lucas Erceg, while bringing back Mason, Theofanopoulos and Porter - all now veteran starters. When Cal was faced with replacing Dixon Anderson, Erik Johnson, Kevin Miller and Louie Lechich after 2011, they were only able to bring in two pitchers at the last minute. As I said, Woodcock is gone and Jordan has thrown two innings. In 2011, five pitchers accounted for all but two starts. In 2013, seven pitchers saw four or more starts. With Jones melting down and Porter's physical issues, the cupboard was essentially bare, as far as top-line starters go, resulting in the patchwork rotation we saw last year.

Cal lost long-time pitching coach Dan Hubbs after the miracle year. How different is Mike Neu's pitching philosophy to that of Hubbs? Is it unfair to blame the lack of development of Kyle Porter and Justin Jones on Neu?

First, a word on recruiting. Neu has the advantage of not only having made it to the pros, but thriving there as a reliever. David Esquer's 1987 Stanford win in the College World Series happened long before current recruits were even born, but Neu's 1999 College World Series save to net a title for Miami, and his early-2000s stint in the Oakland bullpen are much more recent. Neu is a fantastic recruiter. The class this year easily rivals the 2003 class which brought Josh Satin, Brennan Boesch and Brandon Morrow to Berkeley, and a lot of that is because of Neu.

Even the veteran pitchers who were around for the changeover between Hubbs and Neu swore by what Neu did, including Matt Flemer. He brings a tenacity and an intelligence to the position, and he really studies the game. Hubbs was Esquer's right arm for 12 years, and his impact on the program can't be understated, which is why he got the nod as interim manager at USC this past season. Neu and Hubbs are two very different cats. Hubbs is much more old-school, while Neu is more analytical. Neither of the two approaches are better than the other; they're just different. I love Hubbs, and he and I still talk, but I love what Neu brings to the program both as a coach and, given my job responsibilities, as a recruiter.

The biggest issue with Jones was the injury he suffered in the 2011 Super Regional win over Dallas Baptist. He was never the same after that. Neu's biggest problem with dealing with Jones was the fact that he had never been around Jones when he was really going strong. In that sense, maybe Hubbs would have helped pull Jones out of his tailspin.

That being said, Jones lived a lot in his own headspace, and having an injury like that shake him to his very core really had lasting effects, even though he tried to get past it, psychologically. Jones was all about feel. He was a very touch-and-feel lefty, and if he didn't feel right, nothing worked.

He had one or two scintillating outings over the past two years that really showed the old Justin Jones, but he could never do it consistently. I liken it to a player ripping up his knee in football. Once it happens, if you live too much in your own head, it becomes almost impossible to escape the doubt and the tentativeness that comes with every cut and every stride. That's the feeling I got with Jones. He was never as sure of himself after that injury, and Neu tried just about everything he could think of to get Jones out of his funk.

While maybe Hubbs could have helped Jones due to their history together, I don't think it's entirely fair to lay the blame at Neu's feet. I think it was very similar to the way the 2012 team played, as a whole - they were always trying to be the 2011 team, and in so doing, didn't give themselves a chance to form their own identity. Jones was always trying to get back to the 2011 Jones, and in so doing, didn't let himself move on and try to reinvent himself, as many pitchers have to do after injuries of that magnitude.