When the final out of the WBSC Baseball Final Olympic Qualifier was recorded — a groundout to second baseman Gustavo Nunez — to finish an 8-3 victory and give the Dominican Republic the last berth into the Tokyo Summer Olympics, Julio Rodriguez couldn’t immediately sprint to the mound to celebrate with his teammates.
“I was on my knees in right field,” he recalled in a video conference Saturday afternoon. “I was so happy in that moment that I cannot even explain it.”
A week later, sitting in the clubhouse of ONEOK Field in Tulsa, that chill-inducing moment still brings a smile to his face. He’s going to go to the Olympics and represent his country.
“I have never felt like this before playing baseball,” he said. “I’ve been enjoying this game, and I love playing this game every single day. But when I put on that Dominican Republic jersey and to have the Dominican on my chest, it just feels so different. I honestly felt a whole different level of emotions when I wear that uniform.”
Qualifying for the Olympics was the start of what was an eventful week for Rodriguez. Upon his return from Mexico, where the tournament was being held, he was promoted from High-A Everett to Class AA Arkansas on Monday.
In 28 games with the AquaSox, Rodriguez posted a .325/.410/.581 slash line in 134 plate appearances with eight doubles, two triples, six homers, 21 RBI, five stolen bases, 14 walks and 29 strikeouts.
“I think it’s a perfect time for him to go to Double-A,” said Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto in a phone interview on the day of the promotion. “He just went through two trips to play with Team Dominican. I’m not sure you can perform any better than he did during his time with Everett. This is kind of a timeline that we were hoping for when he came back from the second wave of qualifiers. And with that pre-Olympic experience that he would be ready to go play in Double-A. It’s time to give him that challenge. He deserves it.”
Rodriguez made his Class AA debut Tuesday, getting a pair of hits. On Wednesday, he was named to the American League roster for the 2021 SiriusXM Futures Game along with fellow Mariners prospects Jarred Kelenic and Emerson Hancock.
“It’s gonna be pretty fun because there will be a lot talent out there, and I’m really looking forward to face everybody out there and just compete and have fun against some of the best minor-league players that we have right now,” he said. “I’ve watched that game in the past. It was one of my dreams to play in that game.”
On Friday, he smashed his first homer for the Travelers, a majestic two-run opposite-field blast. He’s embracing the challenge of the higher talent and advanced level of competition that Class AA provides. He quickly noticed the pitchers’ ability to locate and execute pitches in the strike zone, particularly breaking pitches for strikes and their willingness to challenge him with fastballs as well. It wasn’t quite as prevalent at the Class A level and pitchers often tried to work around him.
“I personally like that,” he said. “I like that they stay in the zone, and I like competing against them. As I keep moving up, it will be like that more and more. It’s really fun. They actually try to compete against me more.”
A year ago, the minor-league season had been canceled due to the pandemic and about two weeks later he would suffer a fractured wrist during a summer camp workout that would put him in a cast for six weeks.
Now, he will play a few weeks with Arkansas before reporting to the Dominican Republic and then flying to Tokyo for the July 23 opening ceremonies, where he will walk into the stadium with his teammates and fellow Dominicans with his country’s flag and the world watching. “That’s going to be really special,” he said. “That’s one of the things I was thinking the most about to be honest. I don’t know if I’m the one that’s going to do it, but carrying that flag on that stage and showing it off for the small island like the Dominican Republic in the Olympics will be a really special moment.”
A huge NBA fan, he hopes to see Team USA play at least one game or at least meet Kevin Durant.
“I’ve definitely got to watch one of those games,” he said. “He’s one of the best to ever do it.”
Rodriguez is uncertain if his parents will be able to make the trip to Tokyo. They will be in Denver for the Futures Game July 11.
“They were really excited for me,” he said. “Baseball is really big in the DR. And me coming from Loma De Cabrera, which is a really small town in the Dominican Republic, and coming out of there and to be on this team and being a big part of it, they were excited for me. They were there since I started playing this game, and they see where I’m at right now and the things I’ve accomplished.”
Rodriguez doesn’t think he would be discussing any of it without a shift in his thinking after a brief stint playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. It was an eye-opening and humbling experience about playing baseball where winning is the ultimate goal, not development.
When he returned to the U.S. in December, he changed his entire offseason philosophy and preparation. He added muscle while trimming off fat, worked on his speed and flexibility and hit in the cage with a purpose.
“I can say, it was everything,” he said. “From winter ball to the work I did in Tampa, all the work I did, it’s everything right now. That’s why I’m having all the success I’m having because I prepared myself in a really good way in the offseason.”
Would he even be having this media session discussing these accomplishments without it?
“No,” he said. “I don’t think so.”