MINNEAPOLIS — Julio Rodriguez wouldn’t allow home-plate umpire Marty Foster’s strike zone to disrupt his focus. And he certainly wouldn’t let the desire of getting his first big-league hit outweigh the importance of the Mariners rallying for a 4-3 win over the Minnesota Twins on Saturday afternoon.
With overwhelming hype on social media, much of it team-generated, and expectations for greatness predicted, the Mariners’ top prospect had yet to register a hit in his first seven plate appearances at the major-league level, including strikeouts in five of the last six.
But when he stepped to the plate in the top of the ninth inning and his team trailing 3-2, his only focus was getting on base and being that tying run.
“I went up there to get something going for the team,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it was a walk, a base hit, a double, whatever. My mindset was to get something in the middle and just get something going for the team.”
Facing Twins closer Tyler Duffey, Rodriguez worked a full count and smacked a 3-2 fastball into the left-center gap. Similar to how he played during a scintillating spring training, he exploded from the batter’s box with the thought of extra bases. Despite Byron Buxton using his elite speed to chase the ball down and grab it on the second hop, Rodriguez didn’t hesitate to test the Gold Glove outfielder, making it to second standing up with ease.
His family in the stands erupted in celebration as a helmetless Rodriguez screamed “Let’s go!!!”
“I was excited to see Julio get that first one and in a big moment,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “And I think that’s what happens; you quit thinking about it. It’s ‘Hey, we got to figure a way to get on base,’ and all of a sudden, wham, there’s a hit. You’re not thinking about getting a hit; you’re just thinking about getting on base.”
Rodriguez started the rally that saw him move to third base on J.P. Crawford’s ground out to the right side of the infield and score easily on Adam Frazier’s double to left-center. The Mariners took the lead moments later on Ty France’s single to right field.
“I was just trying to find my pitch, something I could drive,” he said. “I know they’ve been a lot of off-speed and a few were out of the zone a little bit. I was just sticking to the plan to try and find something to drive and that’s what I got.”
Rodriguez got his first MLB hit and the baseball, but he was more pleased about the run tying the game and leading to a win.
“It was really important to me,” he said. “You can do whatever you want on the field, but if you don’t help your team win, I feel like it’s pointless. That’s the way I view it. The double was cool, but the run mattered the most.”
Rodriguez struck out looking his first two at-bats, displeased with three called strikes from Foster, two of which were for strike three. MLB Statcast data showed that all three were not strikes or even borderline.
“There were a few tough calls today,” Servais said. “And you can’t control it. I think Julio is really mature in that sense. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and doesn’t get too high or too low. He’s pretty even keel, but I don’t care who you are, it starts spinning on you a little bit when you’re not getting those calls. He stayed in a good spot and knew he had a big at-bat left and took care of business when he got the opportunity.”
Rodriguez never threw a tantrum or showed much more frustration than a head shake. Regardless of the umps’ desire to adhere to the same strike zone with all hitters, he knows that rookies aren’t likely to get the borderline calls in most situations.
“That’s how it works,” he said. “Rookies don’t get those mistakes. They’re not going to get in my head with that. I struck out three times today, and I was able to deliver in my fourth at-bat.”
Admittedly, his first MLB game on Friday was a bit surreal and didn’t start to feel normal until the end.
“I got to be honest with you guys,” Rodriguez said. “Yesterday, I was trying to soak the whole moment in and just kind of enjoy it. I basically achieved my dream. I got here. I kind of woke up like in the sixth inning a little bit. That’s when I realized, ‘OK, I’m in a big league game. I’m actually playing in a big league game.’ ”
He even admitted as much to Servais, who wasn’t surprised.
“It doesn’t matter how much you talk about it,” Servais said before Saturday’s game. “They have to go through it. Hearing some of the comments that he made in the lunchroom after the game, he’s like, ‘Yeah, you know, I woke up in the seventh inning. I’m like, where have I been? It’s like I was just watching the movie.’ He’s out there again today. Hopefully, he can slow it down a little bit better today.”
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.