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Miami Kids Give EMU Life

25 - Justin Rodriguez_5145S_revise

Courtesy Daily News Record, April 9, 2012

Justin and Chris Rodriguez get it all the time: “Are you guy’s brothers?”

Naturally, two Miami kids with the same last name and the same Cuban heritage who played at the same high school and are now on the same college baseball team more than 1,000 miles away from home must be related.

Nope.

But they do have this in common: The two freshmen are hammering baseballs for Eastern Mennonite University this season.

“My assistant and I were talking the other week,” coach Jason Stuhlmiller said, “and we said, ‘We wish we had eight other Rodríguezes’. Just a team of Rodríguezes’.”

Justin, a 6-foot-1 third baseman with an angular jaw and sienna brown hair formed into a faux-hawk, leads the Royals (10-19) with a .412 batting average, four home runs and 38 RBIs through 29 games as EMU heads into the final two weeks of the regular season. Chris, a 5-foot-7 outfielder with a rounder face and short, black hair, is hitting .393 with less power but plenty of pop. Justin bats right; Chris bats lefty. Justin hits third in the order, Chris leads off. Justin wears No. 25; Chris dons No. 6.

But again, for every difference, there’s a similarity.

They’ll work anybody under the table,” Stuhlmiller said. “They’re the hardest working kids in the weight room, on the field, off the field. That’s the kind of kid that we’re after in recruiting.”

Stuhlmiller, in his first season as EMU’s head coach, has a connection with a recruiting agency in Miami, which is how he learned of the Rodríguezes’, who both attended powerhouse Pace High School in Miramar, Fla.

Under coach Tom Duffin, 78 of 82 seniors to come through Pace have played collegiately or professionally. The team has been ranked No. 1 in the nation, and has featured players such as Washington Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez and first baseman Chris Marrerro, the Nats’ first round selection in 2006.

Certainly there were scouts watching the Rodríguezes’ play at Pace, but somehow, “both were flying under the radar as far as recruiting,” Duffin said.

Neither received an offer to play at a Division I school. Justin said he probably could have walked on at Division II Barry University or St. Thomas University of the NAIA, “but here was a school that actually wanted me,” he said of Division III EMU. “And I really wanted to go somewhere that really wanted me and where I would play.”

They didn’t make the decision jointly, but the mutual interest helped both Justin and Chris choose to leave glitzy Miami for the tranquil Shenandoah Valley.

Duffin says it’s usually difficult for Miami kids to leave home. For one, Latin families are typically very tight-knit, and family-oriented.

“Mommy spoils them,” Duffin said, admitting that he’s generalizing. “Mommy wants them to stay home. …Going to the Virginia area – it’s tough. It’s a culture shock. …Not every kid can adjust to that.”

Justin and Chris took the chance and traded their swimsuits for hiking boots. Each said he’s happy now, and for a similar reason.

“It’s a lot different from Miami,” said Chris, a biology major and aspiring dentist. “Quiet and stuff. …At first, it was hard to get used to it, but it’s good, especially for school. Because it’s calmer than Miami. Not as much going on.”

“It’s very different from Miami,” Justin echoed. “I get to concentrate more on my studies. It’s a friendly atmosphere; I guess you could say, I like it here.”

Of course, it isn’t as hard to enjoy yourself when you’re rapping the ball like the Rodríguezes’. Prior to a 6-5 loss at Washington & Lee on Wednesday, Chris had gone 16-for-26 (.615) in the previous five games, picking up multiple hits in each.

Justin, meanwhile has had multiple hits in each of his last seven games, going 16pfor-33 (.485) including all four of his home runs as well as 12 RBIs.

“Just practicing and sticking with my swing,” Justin said is the reason behind his hot streak. “I think my mental aspect is most of it. I feel confident up there.”

The two players show up one and half hours before games to hone their swings by thumping balls off batting tees, according to Stuhlmiller. They, along with sophomore catcher Jonathan Estrada (from Doral, Fla.) and freshman outfielder Bryan Melendez (Lansdale, Pa.), form what the Royals call “The Hispanic Connection.”

Stuhlmiller, who also has a connection with Doral Academy, hopes to keep tapping the Miami area for overlooked talent.

“The game experience that they have – you can definitely tell in the way they play ball,” he said. “Polished is probably the word, but it’s also that they know the game of baseball. …They just know how to play the game correctly.”

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