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A year after mom's death, Senzatela pitches on Mother's Day
By PAT GRAHAM
DENVER (AP) Every now and then, Colorado Rockies pitcher Antonio Senzatela can still hear his mom's voice when he's on the field.
The voice he used to hear above all other voices as a kid: "Let's go, baby!" she'd scream in Spanish.
He misses those comforting words.
Nidya Yusbelis Rondon never got the chance to see her son pitch in the majors, passing away last July of breast cancer in Venezuela. But he carries her spirit when he takes the mound, with "Nidya" stitched on his cleats and glove. He also scribbled "I love Nidya" - with a heart - in black marker inside his cap.
Then there's this: He will get the start on Mother's Day.
"She's watching me," the 22-year-old Senzatela said. "I know she is."
Senzatela's family was all about baseball. His dad bought him his first glove when he was a baby growing up in Valencia, Venezuela. His grandfather, a carpenter, made him a tiny wooden bat he used as a child.
And his mom, of course, was always the fixture - the one yelling from the stands. The one who greeted him after good games or bad with a big plate of chicken and rice. She was the one he could always talk to.
Starting out, he was a third baseman. His favorite players, though, were pitchers - Seattle flamethrower Felix Hernandez and standout Josh Beckett.
Given his cannon for a right arm, Senzatela was asked to switch to pitcher.
No, he said.
It could lead to a pro career, he was told, given his blazing fastball.
He grudgingly conceded.
"Yeah. It was a good move," he laughed.
Senzatela was originally signed as a non-drafted international free agent in 2011, when he was just 16. He pitched two seasons in the Dominican Summer League, going 11-3 with a 1.19 ERA before heading off to the minors.
Leaving home - that was a big deal for him. He missed his family, which includes two older sisters and a younger one. His mom would call before every start, telling him the same thing.
"She'd say, `You can do this. Let's go. You're good. You'll do fine. I love you,'" recounted Senzatela, who will swing a pink bat Sunday as part of Major League Baseball's breast cancer awareness. "Every time. That's what she'd say."
Last season, he was off to a sizzling season with Double-A Hartford until he strained his right shoulder. He went on the disabled list twice last season and didn't pitch again after June.
In the middle of his arm woes, he received a call from his dad.
His mom was real sick. He needed to come home.
With the blessing of the team, he rushed to Venezuela and spent a month by his mom's side. No baseball talk, just conversations about life.
"I just told her I loved her and you're the best mom ever," Senzatela said. "I'll keep it going."
He was with her when she died on July 24.
Now, he pitches with her in his mind - and wearing the cross she gave him around his neck.
"She's in my heart," he said.
Hardly a given to make the Rockies' roster out of spring training, Senzatela has become their most dependable arm. He's 5-1 with 24 strikeouts and a 2.86 ERA. He also was named NL rookie of the month for April.
Just one of the burgeoning young arms for the NL West-leading Rockies, along with Kyle Freeland, German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman. They all feed off each other - an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-too mantra.
"We all played together at Triple-A," Hoffman said, before stopping himself. "Not Senzatela. He's a prodigy."
It helps to have a mid-90s fastball and a slider that falls off the table. There's also the things that can't be quantified - pitching in honor of his mom.
"Whether ... her memory has helped him, we don't know," manager Bud Black said. "I do know that this young man, when he plays and competes, he does so with a great deal of passion.
"He's extremely focused, has a big heart and just likes to really play, which is great."
On April 11 against San Diego, Senzatela earned his first big league win and was given the game ball.
His plan for the memento? Easy - take it back to Venezuela and place it on his mother's grave, where it belongs.
"I feel like I need to do that," Senzatela said. "Every game she was there. Every game. I can still hear her voice, `Let's go, baby!' I know she's so proud of me. I know she loved me a lot."
More AP baseball: www.apnews.com/tags/MLBbaseball
Updated May 13, 2017