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Star catcher Michael Rothenberg returns to lead Duke baseball's offense once again

Rothenberg returns as one of the best catchers in the country.
Rothenberg returns as one of the best catchers in the country.

Last June, 160 high school and college athletes saw their names called in the abbreviated, five-round 2020 MLB Draft. 

Michael Rothenberg was not one of those players. 

In any normal year, Rothenberg would’ve certainly received a phone call during one of the draft’s 40 rounds. In fact, in any normal year, he would’ve likely been drafted within those first five rounds. But this past year has been anything but normal, with COVID-19 leading to a cost-saving, shortened MLB Draft and forcing Rothenberg to watch 160 other players see their dreams come true. 

Now, the senior catcher will return to the diamond rocking Duke blue for what will likely be one final season, with more to prove than ever before. 

“Coming out of the cancellation season, I thought my Duke career was done…. I heard from a lot of teams that I was in that top-five round pool. I really thought I would still be picked,” Rothenberg told The Chronicle. “Draft day comes and the draft turns into more of a three-round draft with rounds four and five being more money-saving type picks, so I didn’t hear my name called—obviously [that was] a little disappointing.”

The road to the MLB for Rothenberg was not necessarily closed at that point. Undrafted free agency began immediately in the following days, and like many of the other draft-worthy players who didn’t make the cut, Rothenberg was fielding calls from teams all across the country who could offer him a second chance at his ultimate goal. The money isn’t as lucrative and the mountain to The Show becomes steeper, but it’s an opportunity nonetheless. 

Ultimately, though, Rothenberg decided a run at the draft the following year and a chance for a national championship with Duke was enough to decline all professional offers, after hearing from nearly every team in the league. 

“I had the opportunity to either sign with a professional team or come back to school,” Rothenberg said. “[I] spoke to a bunch of teams, heard some professional teams out, and then made the decision to come back to school. And I think it was certainly the right thing.”

Star pitcher and close friend Bryce Jarvis heard his name called No. 18 overall, making him the highest-drafted Blue Devil in program history. The two teammates entered Duke in the same class and quickly became friends off the field, eventually forming one of the most dominant batteries in college baseball on the field as well–Rothenberg caught Jarvis’ perfect game nearly one year ago to the day.

The bond between a pitcher and catcher often transcends the sport, so although the duo is broken up, Rothenberg said they’ll remain close friends no matter what.

“Bryce and I played together for three years and we’re pretty close, me and him, so we talked throughout the process leading up to the draft about what we were each hearing,” Rothenberg said. “We were actually living together down in Florida training during that summer period, so we were able to have lots of face to face conversations about it. After the draft was more just congratulations for him and I was super proud that he was able to do that and become the highest draft pick in Duke baseball history.” 

As Rothenberg said, not getting drafted was disappointing. But this Duke team still means everything to the Florida native. Although continuing his career at the next level is important, right now Rothenberg is simply focused on two things: improving himself and winning. 

“For personal goals, expanding on some personal success I found last year through 16 games, continue to drive in a lot of runs. Especially in that three-four spot in the lineup, I’m hoping to get up to that 60 RBI mark over the course of the season and be the main run producer on a top-10 offense,” Rothenberg said. “In terms of team goals…. I think taking that next step and getting to Omaha [for the College World Series] and competing there is something that all 43-some-odd guys on this team are laser locked on trying to accomplish this year.” 

The switch hitter has been nothing short of impressive throughout his three years in Durham. His career batting average sits at .275, reaching .349 across 16 games last year before the season was cut short. He also boasts a career slugging percentage of .471, including last year’s mark of .605. But perhaps his most impressive stat is the 15 walks he amassed in just 70 plate appearances last season, leading to an ACC-leading .551 on-base percentage.

“Those guys shouldn’t be back in a normal year,” head coach Chris Pollard told The Chronicle regarding Rothenberg as well as fellow senior Joey Loperfido. “They wouldn’t be back, but man has it been a blessing to have them both back. Joey’s a captain and Mike’s our time management liaison—they’re both in leadership roles for us. They’re both terrific players and it’s been a privilege to coach them both, so to get one more year to coach both those guys is really a blessing and they’re going to be a big part of our team this spring, that’s for sure.”

When the time comes, Rothenberg will surely see his name on the MLB draft board. But right now, he’s focused on his likely last season in Durham. The Blue Devils have their eyes set on Omaha, and are looking at their four-year starting senior to lead them there.  

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