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HERD'S RODRIGUEZ BATTLES SLUMP

Some batters dig themselves a small hole with an early season slump. For others, it probably feels like they're going to have to crawl out of a canyon to recover. In the latter category, we present Bisons outfielder John Rodriguez.

The former Yankees farmhand started 0 for 20 before finally collecting a leadoff single here Wednesday night off Syracuse pitcher Chad Gaudin. In Thursday's 6-3 loss to the SkyChiefs in Alliance Bank Stadium, Rodriguez struck out in his first three at-bats. In the seventh inning, he finally collected his first extra-base hit of the season with a booming double to right-center.

So in eight games, Rodriguez is 2 for 29 -- a paltry .069 average -- and has no RBIs. This was not what the Bisons or the parent Cleveland Indians expected from a player who had a breakout season in 2004 for Columbus.

"Cleveland is a team where they bring guys up who are producing and I know that," said Rodriguez, 27. "It's not like being with the Yankees where, if somebody gets hurt, they go and buy somebody else. Over here, they give guys a chance in the big leagues. To start off like this is a little heartbreaking but you have to keep battling and keep fighting."

Rodriguez hit .294 last season with 16 homers and 68 RBIs at Columbus. He finished tied for second in the IL with 10 triples and posted career highs in runs (78) and RBIs. He was also seventh in on-base percentage, ninth in slugging and 11th in total extra-base hits.

So his woes in the No. 2 spot in the order have been the biggest mystery for a Buffalo team that is 4-4 and batting an IL-worst .208.

"We just have to get John to relax," said manager Marty Brown. "Everywhere he's been, he's hit. Getting off to a slow start has a tendency to wear on you mentally. But he's working hard, grasping at things and trying to come out of it."

"Right now I'm trying to get into a groove and not let my mind play tricks on me," Rodriguez said. "If you stay positive and confident, you're going to hit."

Rodriguez's biggest problem has been his stride in the batter's box. His front foot has not been down in time to meet fastballs and he's been late on many pitches, accounting for his team-high 10 strikeouts.

"Marty has been telling me to hang in there and everything will be OK," Rodriguez said. "I'm late on balls and he's telling me to get my bat ready earlier and things will happen. A base hit here, a double there and hopefully things will come around."

Rodriguez and leadoff man Brandon Phillips have created a black hole at the top of the Buffalo lineup. Phillips, batting .125, went 1 for 5 Thursday and all four of his outs were fly balls. The Buffalo staff has been working hard trying to get Phillips to hit on top of the ball so it stays on the ground and he can use his speed.

Phillips did it well on a hit-and-run single in the third that sent Joe Inglett from first to third.

"Pitchers in this league have seen Brandon and those pitches up in the (strike) zone look good to him," Brown said. "They're tough to lay off. I spent 10 years playing this game trying to lay off of them too so I know."

About 400 fans braved a cold night to see Syracuse earn a split of the four-game series with a three-run sixth off reliever Denny Stark (0-1).

The Bisons finished with seven hits. Jeff Liefer's two-run homer in the first gave starter Kyle Denney a 2-0 lead and Denney left with a 3-2 edge after five innings.

Buffalo opens a four-game series tonight at 7 in Pawtucket (Radio 1230 and 1330 AM). Steve Watkins (1-0) will pitch for the Herd against Pawtucket's Lenny DiNardo (0-0), who earned a World Series ring after seeing spot duty last year for the Boston Red Sox.
e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com