SOUTH CHINA — Ryan Rodrigue’s baseball baptism by fire came as a freshman.

A swing player for Erskine Academy at the time, Rodrigue got called up to the varsity for the playoffs. For most freshmen, that entails being an observer in the dugout to get an inkling of what playoff baseball is about.

Midway through the Eagles’ quarterfinal game at Lewiston, however, their starting shortstop got ejected. Rodrigue took his spot in the field and in the lineup, which meant batting cleanup.

In the sixth inning, with Erskine trailing, 1-0, Lewiston elected to walk No. 3 hitter Shyler Scates, the current University of Southern Maine star, to load the bases and pitch to Rodrigue. The overmatched freshman struck out on three pitches, and the Eagles were eventually eliminated from the playoffs by the 1-0 score.

Rodrigue isn’t obsessed with the moment, but he doesn’t want it to be his only playoff memory, either.

“It was obviously a tough situation I was in. I just hope no one else is in that situation,” he said. “It’d be nice to make another appearance in the playoffs.”

“I think that he’s used that moment to motivate him, because he’s always had success, all the way up through,” said Erskine coach Mark Bailey, who has coached Rodrigue since Little League. “I know what he is capable of, and that just has burned in him. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to make the playoffs since so he can get that chance back.”

Rodrigue will get that chance if the Eagles’ recent upswing continues. They’ve won three in a row and four out of five, including a big victory over then unbeaten Camden Hills, to improve to 5-4 heading into today’s critical matchup with 6-3 Belfast.

Now it’s Rodrigue hitting in the prime No. 3 spot in Erskine’s batting order, and it’s unlikely the mild-mannered senior will ever force a freshman backup into the same difficult position he found himself in three years ago.

Opposing pitchers may still elect to walk the No. 3 hitter, though, regardless of who is hitting behind him. Rodrigue’s average is hovering around .500, and it’s safe to say he is the rising tide that raises all boats in the Eagles’ order.

“They say hitting is contagious, and he sets the tone for us,” Bailey said. “It’s just his mentality that he’s going to be successful.”

“As long as we get baserunners on, we know Ryan’s going to hit it hard somewhere,” Bailey added.

Already tough to beat inside, Rodrigue has worked on his plate coverage to become a dangerous opposite-field hitter. Now that the Eagles’ bats have started to warm up after a slow start, he can focus more on making contact and using the whole field rather than clearing the fences.

“I think being able to hit the ball to right-center field is kind of a big thing,” Rodrigue said. “And then knowing that there are people behind me that can hit is good to relieve some of the pressure, I guess.”

Rodrigue takes a lot of pressure off his own pitchers and fellow infielders with his fluid play as shortstop, which, along with his hitting, earned him all-conference honors last year.

“It’s tough to get a ball by him,” Bailey said. “He made a play the other day in the hole that, I mean, there’s nobody else on our team that could get to that ball, never mind come up and make the throw and throw the kid out. He can go left. He can go right. He’s very versatile. He’s a good athlete. He just covers so much ground.”

Rodrigue confessed that he’d rather be covering that ground than on the mound, but he doesn’t mind toeing the rubber in big games, either. He didn’t pitch regularly for the Eagles until last year and has made three starts this year. But as his two-hit shutout against Camden Hills last Friday showed, he’s capable of playing the role of staff ace.

“He’s really not a natural pitcher. It’s just that his athleticism allows us to put him there,” Bailey said.

As with his hitting, Rodrigue doesn’t feel compelled to take the weight of the team’s fortunes on his shoulders when he’s on the mound this year.

“We have a few young pitchers that have helped us out this year,” he said. “Last year, we didn’t necessarily have that.”

Rodrigue’s all-around talent would seemingly make him the object of countless college coach’s attention, but he hasn’t been a heavily sought-after recruit, much to Bailey’s surprise. The coach chalks it up to the Eagles’ less-than-stellar record the last two years and getting lost in the shuffle of a conference and region flush with baseball talent.

Rodrigue did draw some interest but ultimately made his college choice without baseball at the forefront.

“I kind of made my decision based on education, what was best for me there,” said Rodrigue, who will study nursing at the University of New England.

Before that, Rodrigue and the Eagles have a little unfinished business to settle.

“Getting to the playoffs now is the number one goal. After that, anyone can win,” he said. “That’s shown itself already (in the KVAC). Any team can beat anybody.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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