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SEATTLE -- October’s lights shine brightest where the stars step up, seemingly go above their elite capabilities and don’t just live up to the moment, but manifest the moment themselves.
Julio Rodríguez has been in the Majors for just six months, yet he’s already showing that he’s built for the postseason, where baseball is hyper-pressurized, turned up to the Nth degree and shot out of a cannon. If some of the epic moments he’s shown in this rookie season have indicated, he can be that playoff firework.
“He's 21 years old, there is a lot to play for,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He likes when the lights are on, and the lights are going to be on. He’s super talented. He doesn’t make moments bigger than they are. He just plays baseball.”
Rodríguez was activated from the 10-day injured list on Monday, having missed the allotted time with a lower back strain that he began experiencing three weeks ago. The star center fielder was leading off and serving as the DH for the first time all season when the Mariners opened their final regular-season series, but he’ll return to full-time center field duties by this weekend’s AL Wild Card Series, per Servais.
Any back injury for a young talent is alarming, and Rodríguez says he’s still unsure of how he suffered the injury. Yet he believes he’s put it behind him, adding: “It’s not going to be a thing.” If that’s the case, Rodríguez could be primed for a big October, and the Mariners will certainly need him.
“I think everybody who has seen us play all year knows that there is a Julio factor,” Servais said. “I think our ownership group realizes it. I think our fanbase realizes it. I think our team realizes it.”
Since a rocky first few weeks in April, when he was also adjusting to some rookie treatment, Rodríguez hasn’t just run away as the AL Rookie of the Year Award favorite, he’s also been one of MLB’s most productive players. Entering Monday, Rodríguez had hit .287/.357/.549 since June 1, for a .906 OPS that ranks 10th-highest among 134 qualified hitters. His 160 wRC+ (league average is 100) in that span is seventh best.
Stats aside, consider the huge moments in which he’s been able to drown out the pressure and deliver:
• The electric Home Run Derby performance in which he finished runner-up but firmly announced himself on the national stage.
• The eighth-inning grand slam in Texas on July 15 that helped the Mariners extend their win streak to an eventual 14 games.
• The late-inning go-ahead, three-run homer on a day when the Mariners couldn’t get anything going on July 27, also against the Rangers.
• The 117.2 mph game-tying blast off Atlanta’s Kenley Jansen in the bottom of the ninth on Sept. 11, which set up a walk-off from Eugenio Suárez, just after the defending champs had sucked all of the wind out of Seattle’s sails.
Many moments like those are what the postseason is built on, and those are just the most significant examples. Rodríguez has also shown increased leadership.
“He's an impossible player not to love when you watch him play,” Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said. “And then even when you get to spend time around him, he's just a fabulous guy, he embodies all those things. But when you watch him on a field, his physical ability is different than most players you'll ever see.
“And when you go in the Wayback Machine and think through all the postseasons past that you've watched, you'll remember the unbelievable pitching performance by a power pitcher who stepped up, and we've got a handful of those guys that I feel like have those capabilities. And then you remember the big moments from the athlete on the field to look bigger than life in that time, and I think Julio has a lot of those traits.”
Robbie Ray, the first-year ace who’s been on playoff teams before, encapsulated it best with recognition of the potential star power on the other side of his new locker room.
“We want those young superstars, Julio Rodríguez -- the kid needs to be in the playoffs," Ray said a few weeks back. "The world needs to know who Julio Rodríguez is, and they're going to find out. And I think that it's just going to explode when this team can do that.”
With 27 homers this year, Julio Rodríguez has tied for the most among rookies in Mariners history. Who does he hold the record with?
A.) Ken Griffey Jr.
B.) Alvin DavisC.) Alex RodríguezD.) Danny Tartabull
Roughly 30 minutes after the Mariners doused themselves in champagne in the home clubhouse, the entire team returned to the field and faced a sold-out crowd that had lingered late into the night to keep the party rolling. Servais then gave an impassioned three-minute speech thanking fans, which isn’t necessarily common for a playoff-bound manager. Then again, it hasn’t been common for the Mariners to be in this position.
Here’s what he shared with MLB.com about the speech in the moments after giving it:
“I came out here today and I went and sat in the upper deck by myself and you guys have been here for a while and know that I usually like to run the stadium steps and I went up there and just sat by myself. It was a perfect day here and I just started staring at the banners -- and I said it needs to change. Today is the day, and that's what I meant. I felt it [Thursday] that we were going to get it done tonight."
Did he think that most of the sellout crowd would stick around as long as they did?
“I had a pretty good feeling. It's been 21 years; people are not in a hurry to go home. They've been watching a lot of rough Mariners baseball over the years. But the thing that we talked about was to build something that can sustain success for a period of time, a long period of time. And I think we have that because it's built by young players. It's built by some veteran players and we've got other players coming.”
You can watch his full speech here.
VOTE MARCO FOR ROBERTO CLEMENTE AWARD
Marco Gonzales is up for the Roberto Clemente Award, bestowed annually to the player who best represents baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.
Gonzales and his wife, Monica, this year in particular have spearheaded efforts to raise awareness and funds to support research and find a cure for Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), a rare, degenerative neurological disorder that impacted their family in 2016. He’s also aided efforts to help hunger prevention, support blood drives and prevent domestic violence, among many other initiatives.
One of the only players to reside in Seattle year-round, the community impact means a lot to the left-hander.
You can vote for Gonzales here.
REGULAR SEASON FINALE
Let’s keep the party going at T-Mobile Park! The Mariners wrap up the regular season tomorrow afternoon against the Tigers at 1:10. Be here and be loud! Buy Tickets
Want to catch a Postseason game with 20 to 40 of your closest friends and family? Lock in a Private or Group Suite for an unforgettable ballpark experience. Limited suites remain. Buy Suite
J.P. Crawford loves engaging with fans, especially kids, as much as any player on the team, and on Thursday, he shared a fun interaction by dealing a baseball in exchange for some cotton candy, which he then proceeded to share with the rest of the dugout. For all the pressure of the Mariners’ playoff push, it was a fun moment of levity.
• The drought had seeped its way into the fabric of the Mariners organization to the point where it in many ways defined its identity. Now, it’s over. A reign is underway in Seattle.
• Full count, two outs, bottom of the ninth, pinch-hit, walk-off homer to clinch a playoff berth. It's what kids dream of in the backyard. And statistically, it'd never happened -- in MLB history -- until Cal Raleigh's heroics.
• Now that they’re in, what’s next for the Mariners? Here’s a Seattle-specific postseason FAQ.
It’s postseason time, so we looked back on Seattle’s last win during the playoffs -- a Game 3 victory in the 2001 AL Championship Series, headlined by an emphatic homer from Jay Buhner at Old Yankee Stadium.
B.) Alvin Davis (1984)
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