Carlos Rodon was not at his best Tuesday night, but the hardest step of his path back to a major-league mound is done.
The former N.C. State left-hander pitched in a competitive game for the first time in 2017 after battling bursitis in his left biceps for nearly three months, giving up four runs in 3 1/3 innings at Five County Stadium for the Winston-Salem Dash, the Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. More important, he walked off the mound after his 71st pitch in the fourth inning feeling healthy.
“It was good to get back out there and pitch again,” Rodon said after the game. “It’s been a little while, but it was fun to compete.”
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The outing was the culmination of a long road to recovery. Rodon spent most of his time after his March 19 injury rehabbing his arm in Arizona.
“Injuries are not fun, especially when you’re 1,500 miles away from your team,” Rodon said. “Guys out there are busting their butts and working hard, and I’m sitting and rehabbing. Days are short for me, and days are long for them.”
But when the White Sox sent Rodon close to home for the start of his rehab assignment, the Holly Springs native enjoyed a few moments of relaxation in the last week before the real start to his season, going fishing with his dad and spending time with his family between rehab sessions.
“You don’t get to do that much in this career,” Rodon said. “It’s a little vacation, but I’m still working hard.”
When the moment finally came for him to face opposing batters, he blew the Carolina Mudcats away in the first inning, throwing eight straight strikes to start the night and striking out the side. The faulty center-field radar gun display could not handle his fastball, flashing 103 mph for one pitch. It mostly stayed between 94 and 96 mph.
Command issues crept in during the second inning, when the Mudcats capitalized on a few pitches he left over the plate with three hits, including a two-run home run. Rodon said his goal was to get through five innings on 75 pitches, but he could only get two-thirds of the way there with 10 outs.
“I came out quick and felt good in that first inning,” Rodon said. “The command was there, just wish I would have been able to stay steady with that throughout the whole outing. But that’s what I’m here for, to work on that.”
Rodon’s velocity and endurance did not appear to slip as he reached his pitch-count limit, but he had to get used to the North Carolina summer night, the only unwelcome development of coming back home to pitch.
“The humidity got to me a little bit, but that’s all right,” Rodon said with a grin. “Not really used to it being in Arizona, it’s dry and hot. I’m sweating a lot out here.”
Despite the struggles, his comfort on the mound impressed the N.C. State fans in the crowd, including Wolfpack head coach Elliot Avent, who made the trip to see his pupil a day after his team’s season ended with a loss to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament in Lexington.
Avent visited the Dash’s clubhouse after Rodon’s outing was done to talk to his former player about his progress.
“I was glad to see how easy he threw, and effortlessly,” Avent said. “I’m sure I’ll talk to some people tonight with their organization. ... My feedback is going to be outstanding.”
Rodon stayed after the game to sign autographs for his fans and left the park without knowing if he will be back in the area anytime soon.
The White Sox are building for the future after trading staff ace Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox last winter, and the 6-3, 235-pound Rodon is a big part of those plans. The 24-year-old finished his second full season with nine quality starts last August and September and is 18-16 with a 3.90 ERA for his career.
So it is no surprise that the White Sox are being cautious and keeping a close eye on one of their most critical young players, who they selected third overall in the 2014 MLB Draft. White Sox pitching coordinator Richard Dotson accompanied Rodon to Tuesday’s game and worked with him in the bullpen after he was done pitching, and it will be up to Dotson and the White Sox management to determine what comes next.
There is still rust to shake off before Rodon can return to the mound in Chicago after a group of Mudcats who are long shots to sniff the majors shelled him for five runs, but he is closer to that point than he has been all season.
“(I’ll) make another start somewhere, wherever it is, five days from now, whatever the pitch count is,” Rodon said. “We’ll see. I don’t know yet.”
If Rodon pitches again for the Dash, he would be lined up start Sunday afternoon at home in Winston-Salem, but he could also keep progressing to the Class AA Birmingham Barons or Class AAA Charlotte Knights.