Minnesota State had high hopes this season. Projected as the top team in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, the Mavericks knew in order to get there, their solid starting rotation would have to lead the way.
The Mavericks have answered the call. They are 26-5 overall on the season and an impressive 21-1 in the NSIC heading into their upcoming showdown with St. Cloud State at their Mankato campus.
“We’re ready to go," junior southpaw Brody Rodning said. "They’re a good team and are ready to compete. We got guys that are ready to go, and we’re fired up for this game.”
A 21-1 conference record is an astounding feat. The rivalries and familiarity between programs makes even the last place team a monumental challenge. MSU has met those challenges and continues to roll.
“Every time we go out and get a win it builds our confidence," Rodning said. "It shows on the field. Guys are playing better and having more fun. We’re loose. We get along together so well as a team, I think that’s part of the reason we get wins. We work so well together.”
The road to the top of the NSIC wasn’t as easy as it looks, however.
Days before the Mavericks were set to open their season, they were blind-sided by tragedy. Sophomore catcher and pitcher Adam Ellington unexpectedly passed away, leaving a hole not simply on their roster but in their hearts.
The Mavericks in turn have played inspired baseball. After losing four of their first eight, Minnesota State reeled off 17 wins in a row, tearing through the NSIC.
They were able to do it behind one of the best rotations in the Division II. Brody Rodning, Dalton Roach, Nick Belzer and Mitchell Bauer have formed the foundation as the primary starters. Together they have posted a team ERA of 2.26, which is the second best in DII. They are in the top ten in both strikeouts-per-nine and strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“It’s pretty great knowing that whoever you put out there, you are going to get a good showing," Rodning said. "It’s awesome. I feel like it gives the hitters some relief. They know we’re going to go out and give them a chance to win the game. It’s a weight off your shoulders knowing that you have guys on this club that are experienced and know how to pitch, and pitch in big situations.”
Rodning has led the charge.
Baseball | Rodning Named NSIC Pitcher of the Week https://t.co/ONPCdfuHsc— Minn. St. Athletics (@msumavericks) March 28, 2017
The left-hander’s hot start to 2017 shouldn’t come as a surprise. He was ranked one of Baseball America’s preseason top MLB Draft prospects.
“It’s an honor," Rodning said. "I’m very flattered. Everyone’s dream growing up is to go play in the bigs. Seeing my name on that list, and actually realizing that it could be a reality, it’s humbling. I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to go out and play the game I love and to excel in it. People have an interest in me, that’s awesome. It’s such an honor.”
He came out of the gates hotter than even he expected, allowing one earned run in his first six appearances. A large part of that has to do with a 5-pitch arsenal, a very uncommon package amongst collegiate pitchers. It is highlighted by a fastball that has hit 95 miles per hour.
“I mainly throw a slider, and just recently learned a cutter, too," Rodning said of his secondary offerings. "I have five pitches, and they all work decently. I feel like I have decent command on all of them. I can keep hitters off balance. I like to mix it up, see what the hitter's doing. Mess with their head a little bit.”
Rodning was nearly untouchable from March 18th to April 1st. He pitched three complete game shutouts in a row, striking out 24 and walking just six, while allowing just eight hits during the span. Rodning’s ERA dropped to 0.29 on the season and he was quickly turning heads.
It wasn’t simply his athleticism that captured the attention of his peers and NSIC rivals. It was his heart, being able to pitch under conditions no college student should have to.
The day prior to his March 24th start, Rodning’s mother lost her battle to colon cancer. The next day, he took the mound as scheduled to honor her. His response? A three-hit, complete game shutout.
“That game was special," Rodning said. "My emotions were all sorts of places. I was a little nervous to go out on the mound. I was excited to pitch because I was doing it for mom. When I was pitching I never got too high or too low, but after the game the emotions showed.
“My teammates and coaches, they wanted that win for me so badly. They are like my family away from home. I’m with them four or five hours every day. A brotherhood like that, that relationship is awesome. They wanted that game for me and they played their hearts out.”
The Mavericks have taken their inspiration from several unexpected places this season. They have responded better than anyone could have imagined, currently the No. 19 team in Division II. They have lost just once in their last 23 outings. The team has grown together through tragedy and have risen up through experience.
Rodning especially has embraced his new perspective.
“It’s taught me not to take anything for granted," Rodning said. "I pitch every game like it could be my last. I’ve had a lot of things change and learned a lot of new things. I’ve taught myself responsibility and I’m accountable for myself. This last year, I’ve kind of grown up a little bit and seen the bigger picture.”