Kearny’s Rodriguez emerges as mound ace

Photo by Jim Hague Kearny senior pitcher/third baseman Josue Rodriguez

Photo by Jim Hague
Kearny senior pitcher/third baseman Josue Rodriguez

Josue Rodriguez has been groomed for the role he currently has with the Kearny High School baseball team for the last four years.

It was evident when Rodriguez was still in grammar school that he was destined to be a standout with the Kardinals, both as an infielder, but especially as a pitcher.

“He’s been with me since I started as head coach,” Kearny head coach Frank Bifulco said. “He was a skinny kid as a freshman, but the coaching staff all agreed that he had incredible potential. We knew that this was where our team was going to start, with Josue pitching and playing the infield. We knew we had to pick the best players from the start and Josue was going to grow with us.”

So when Rodriguez entered Kearny, he went right to the varsity as a freshman. Sure, there were growing pains along the way, but there were also the shining moments.

“We saw a lot of potential in him right away,” Bifulco said. “Josue loves baseball. He loves being around the game. He doesn’t let anything affect him or get in his way.”

So this spring, as Rodriguez began his final year with the Kardinals, he knew that he had to take on bigger responsibilities.

“I wanted to get better and play harder,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to do better than last year.”

In the off-season, Rodriguez was diligent on becoming a better all-around ballplayer.

“I worked hard,” Rodriguez said. “Every day, I was in the gym hitting and throwing a lot. I went for pitching lessons. I tried to get my arm stronger. I did a lot of running and lifting.”

When the season began in March, Rodriguez felt he was ready to have a big year for the Kardinals.

“I felt really good,” Rodriguez said. “I felt stronger than I ever did.”

Bifulco knew he had a premier pitching ace in junior left-hander Corey Sawyer, who threw three no-hitters, including a perfect game, last season.

But Bifulco hoped that Rodriguez would be the perfect complement to Sawyer, giving the Kards a potent 1-2 pitching punch.

“When Corey and Josue took the mound, we expected wins,” Bifulco said. “We have two aces. He just had to learn how to control himself. He knows baseball. I didn’t need to tell him anything. He knows the game. But we told him that as a senior, he had to lead the team. We just let him play the game of baseball and let him do the right things.”

Recently, Rodriguez has become the leader of the Kardinals in every facet, but especially on the mound, where he’s been lights out.

Last week, Rodriguez pitched five solid innings against Hudson County rival Memorial, striking out eight. Four days later, Rodriguez came back to pitch 10 scoreless innings against Linden, fanning 14 batters and walking just two. For the season, Rodriguez has 45 strikeouts in 35 innings.

For his efforts, Rodriguez has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

“He wanted the ball against Linden,” Bifulco said. “He said that he had enough rest and was able to go. He was mowing people down, doing his job. He threw only 105 pitches and went 10 innings. That’s the expectations we had of him. I’m more than proud of him. He’s only struggled one game all season (against the state’s No. 5-ranked team St. Peter’s Prep) and bounced right back from that.”

Rodriguez can sense that he’s a better pitcher now than ever before.

“I’m getting better every day,” Rodriguez said. “I’m throwing better. I’m really confident on the mound. I have my fastball, my curve and my change-up. I’m working on a splitter, but I don’t throw it much. I rely a lot on my curveball. I just want the hitters to hit my pitches and make sure that I keep throwing strikes.”

The Kardinals are enjoying a solid season, posting a 12-6 record, their highest win total in several years. They earned the No. 3 seed in the Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Hudson County Tournament and will play their first county playoff game May 12.

“We’re doing really good right now,” Rodriguez said. “We’re getting good pitching and good defense. I like my teammates. We all get along really well.”

Bifulco likes the way Rodriguez has emerged as the team leader off the field as well.

“He’s been able to handle himself as a player and as a leader in the locker room and off the field,” Bifulco said. “He’s really taken his leadership to another level. The younger kids in the town all know who he is and the younger kids on the team all look up to him.”

If there has been one downside to Rodriguez’s performance this season, it’s been at the plate, where he has struggled somewhat.

“It’s a little disappointing, but I know I’ll get better,” Rodriguez said.

It doesn’t deter the way Bifulco looks at his senior leader.

“When he’s pitching or playing third base, he’s one of the best around,” Bifulco said. “He’s one of the best fielding third basemen in the county and he’s already proven to be one of the top pitchers hands down. I would put him up against anyone in the county.”

That says a lot, considering that Rodriguez has Sawyer and junior Connor McClelland (5-0 with a miniscule 0.23 earned run average) on his own team.

“We’re all throwing really well,” Rodriguez said. “I like our pitching.”

Obviously so does Bifulco, as do some certain college coaches. New Jersey City University and Rutgers-Newark have expressed interest in Rodriguez for the fall.

“I want to play baseball in college,” Rodriguez said. “That’s always been my goal.”

“Josue has been a guy who has been under the radar, but for the last three weeks, he’s been pitching great,” Bifulco said. “He’s done a great job and is making this season a very special one.”

And now, Rodriguez is reaching the lofty heights that Bifulco hoped for when he took over the job four seasons ago.

“He’s living up to those expectations,” Bifulco said. “His perseverance says a lot about him. He’s stuck with it and look now at what he’s doing.”

And hopefully, there are more brilliant performances down the stretch as well.

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer