CORVALLIS — When the final out landed in Danny Hayes' glove at 10:31 p.m. Monday night, the Oregon State baseball team had clinched a berth to the College World Series. So they jumped. They yelled. They cheered and they hugged.
And right then, catcher Jake Rodriguez knew June 10 would no longer carry the pall of his father's death.
It would also stand as a day to celebrate.
"This is huge for Beaver Nation, but this means more than that,'' Rodriguez said. "We were supposed to lose that first game. Things happen for a reason. We were supposed to play on this day.''
At around 10 a.m., Rodriguez sent a text message to his teammates.
He told them that June 10 was the day his heart was crushed and he didn't know how to pick himself up and that coming back to Oregon State and playing baseball helped him heal.
"I told them this was the worst day of my life, and here I am a year later living my dream with a chance to go to Omaha,'' Rodriguez said. "I can't say enough about my teammates and how much they have helped me heal. My dad was my best friend, but one of the things I wanted to do was get back here with my guys. You talk to (Michael) Conforto, or Dylan (Davis) and they will tell you we are a family."
Earlier, at 8:57 a.m., Rodriguez sent out a text message to his mother, three older sisters, and his younger brother.
I love you guys.
Let's make today a great day
Nothing but smiles and happiness
I love you guys
That message had nothing to do with the biggest baseball game of his career later that night. It was a reminder to his family to carry themselves the way his father, Marco "Tony" Rodriguez had taught them: head up, positive spirit, exuding strength."That's the approach we have taken since last year on this day,'' said Nancy Rodriguez, who watched Monday's 4-3 win over Kansas State from the top row of Section 2, above the Beavers dugout.
It was June 10 last year when Jake visited Tony Rodriguez in an Elk Grove, Calif., hospital. There had been clotting of Tony's blood, and when Jake visited him, the thought was he was on the road to recovery and would be coming home the next day. They talked about goals for the next year, in school and in baseball.
"I was there with my girlfriend, and he had a big smile on his face,'' Jake remembered. "He told me I better get going, because I had to get back up here for finals ... unfortunately I got a text a couple of hours later. I was just outside of Sacramento ...''
A blood clot passed from his thigh and into his lung. Tony Rodriguez was gone at 43.
"I said it last year in the hospital after my husband died,'' Nancy said "I said Jake is going to play out of his shoes next year. My husband and Jake were best friends. And one of the last things they talked about was this year.''
There have been times when Rodriguez has felt his dad's prescence — like his first at-bat last summer in the Cape Cod League, which was a home run.
"It just seems like there have been signs,'' said his girlfriend, Ashley Elliott.
And perhaps that was the case Monday, when Rodriguez had his fingerprints all over the clinching win.
In the bottom of the first, he extinguished a Kansas State rally when he threw out Shane Conlon at third. The Wildcats had runners at first and second with two outs and their No. 5 hitter up when Ben Wetzler cut a breaking ball short. Rodriguez smothered it with his chest, then pounced on the ball and threw a dart to nail Conlon by more than a step.
At the plate, he went 2-for-3 and scored a run.
And in the bottom of the eighth, he took a one-hop throw from left fielder Michael Conforto and stonewalled Blair DeBord at the plate, denying Kansas State the tying run.
For so many years, when Tony was the coach of the high school freshman team, he would bring Jake along and his son would blend right in, catching and throwing with the older kids.
"I'm not a big spiritual believer, but I believe Tony is in all of us,'' Nancy said. "Jake and Tony were close and since Jake was a baby he had a mitt and a bat. He was swinging without a tee since he was 2. It wasn't that Tony was living baseball thought his son, but it was definitely their connection.''
Rodriguez said he thought about his dad before every at-bat, and all three times he reached base, he said he looked up to the heavens.
"I thanked him. He got me here. He's the reason I'm at Oregon State. Like I said, today was supposed to happen. We were supposed to play today, we were supposed to go to Omaha today, and it's just crazy how things work out.''