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Dereck Rodriguez: San Francisco’s Dark Knight

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San Francisco Giants pitcher Dereck Rodriguez delivers to home against the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum on Friday, July 20, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

AT&T PARK — For much of the season, San Francisco Giants rookie starter Dereck Rodriguez has had a stack of Funko Pop! figurines in the back of his locker, on the top shelf — all of Marvel Comics anti-hero Deadpool.

They’re gone now — on their way back home to become a part of his collection. In that collection is Rodriguez’s most cherished figurine: A New York Comic Con exclusive green chrome Batman.

“I’ve always liked him — dark, mysterious, secretive,” Rodriguez said earlier this week. “He’s not like Iron Man. Nobody knows who he is. Everybody knows who Iron Man is.”

Rodriguez, a sixth-year free agent signing by the Giants this offseason — a converted outfielder, at that — has always been known as Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez’s son. He’s had a secret identity, as it were. Now, as a dark horse Rookie of the Year candidate, he will be entrusted to try and ruin the rival Los Angeles Dodgers’ season, starting today against Clayton Kershaw, with a playoff spot on the line.

“He wants to establish his own identity, and prove that he’s done this on his own, and he is his own guy,” manager Bruce Bochy said.

“If I think of it as Clayton Kershaw, I’ll gum myself up,” Rodriguez said. “I’m just going to go out there and pitch my game and see what happens.”

The Dodgers have to win one more game to clinch a playoff spot, as earlier in the day, the St. Louis Cardinals — a game and a half behind the Dodgers in the Wild Card with one more to play after today — beat the Chicago Cubs. Standing in their way will be the Giants’ own Dark Knight (they did used to be known as the New York Gothams, after all).

Rodriguez grew up with Batman: The Animated Series and the Joel Schumacher Batman films — he even confesses to a guilty-pleasure affinity for Batman & Robin. He has Heath Ledger’s Joker tattooed on his left shoulder, Michelle Pfeifer’s Catwoman and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn on his left forearm, and Christian Bale’s Batman framed by the Bat symbol on his inner left bicep.

On the back of his team-issued Puerto Rico undershirt from the World Baseball Classic, instead of his name, he has the Batman symbol, circa the Michael Keaton version.

Every night as he dresses to leave the ballpark, he can usually be seen putting on a Batman shirt, and a black-on-black Batman ballcap.

Until he gave up four runs last time out, Rodriguez certainly seeemd to be a superhero for the Giants’ rotation. He had a 15-start streak of giving up three runs or fewer. His 2.50 ERA is the lowest among San Francisco starters. He was called up when San Francisco’s rotation was in shambles, with Madison Bumgarner still on the shelf with a broken finger, Jeff Samardzija swinging back and forth between the disabled list and active duty and Johnny Cueto on his way towards needing Tommy John surgery.

He swooped in and made a 3 1/3-inning relief appearance in his first day on the job, stepping in for an ailing Samardzija in Colorado. He threw 69 pitches, allowing five hits and striking out four, and though he gave up four runs, only one was earned. In his first career start, Rodriguez went six innings, allowed five hits and two walks, while only letting in a run and striking out six against the Philadelphia Phillies. His second start was a bit of a rough landing, as he allowed five runs in 2 2/3 innings at Washington on June 9.

He didn’t allow more than three runs in a start again until his last start, Sept. 22.

Among qualifying rookies, he ranks first in ERA, third in opponents batting average against (.216) and sixth in innings pitched (115 1/3). His 2.50 ERA would be the lowest by a Giants rookie (minimum of 100 innings) since Hoyt Wilhelm (2.43) in 1952.

Rodriguez is the first Giants pitcher since 1900 to pitch six or more innings and allow two or fewer runs in at least 13 of his first 16 starts. Not bad for someone who spent the first three seasons of his professional career as an outfielder, and didn’t pitch above Double-A last season.

“I think you look at the stuff, he has four pitches with command, and he does command the ball very well,” Bochy said. “Along with that, it’s savvy. He’s got a good feel for pitching, a good feel for the game, what he wants to throw. I think he reads hitters’ swings well. He’s prepared when he goes out there.”

While some — including Bochy — attribute that preparedness to Rodriguez’s famous father, Rodriguez himself attributes that to the entire Giants pitching staff.

“They taught me everything, and they helped me out, getting used to this,” Rodriguez said.

Chief among them has been Derek Holland — the veteran left-hander whose locker is caddy-corner from Rodriguez’s. The two became close in spring training, and it’s no surprise: They’re both big kids. Holland boasts of having his own Bat Cave, complete with a statue of Batman in his Dark Knight costume from the Christopher Nolan films. Rodriguez has only seen photos.

“If I see it in person, he probably won’t have it after that,” Rodriguez said. “I’ll just take it and disappear.”

Holland played with Ivan, when he was a rookie in 2009. Once Rodriguez got to the majors, Holland wanted to make sure he gave him whatever help he could.

“I want the younger guys to perform, and to not put too much pressure on themselves, and I wanted to make sure anything he had a question with, whatever I could help him with, I would do what I could,” Holland said.

Once the Giants hit the All-Star break, Rodriguez entertained the idea of heading to Comic Con in San Diego, but the first day — July 19 — was the final day of the break, and he was set to pitch the next day in Oakland.

Instead, Holland — an avowed online shopper — bought him a prop Batarang with a piece of cape from the Dark Knight films when he returned to the Bay. He also bought one for himself.

“Got to take care of your guys,” Holland said. “To me, he’s the Rookie of the Year. He’s had a phenomenal year. He’s done a lot for this organization, stepping straight into it and not letting anything get to him. It was like he belonged here right after the gate.”

Rodriguez’s fantasy is to one day go to Comic Con like Mythbuster Adam Savage and hide in plain sight — incognito in a full costume. Right now, he could go in a Giants uniform and not be noticed.

His eyes light up at the prospect of doing it during a future Giants road trip to San Diego. He even entertained the thought at the risk of getting in trouble with the club.

“One hundred percent, I’d definitely go,” Rodriguez said, before thinking better of it. “No, wait, I probably wouldn’t risk getting in trouble. I’d find a costume and go cosplay and have fun. I want to go down there and have fun.”

He does have a little Joker on his shoulder, after all.

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