ARLINGTON, Texas — If you listened hard enough in the stunned silence of Globe Life Field, when the earsplitting music had subsided and most of the 26,494 fans watched as a 21-year-old phenomenon they will have to endure for years to come rounded the bases, that raspy, unforgettable baritone voice of days gone by could be heard.
It could be heard in the homes of Mariners fans around the Pacific Northwest and in places far away where believers in “Sodo Mojo,” “Refuse To Lose,” “Two outs? So what” and a little of that old-time religion reside.
When Julio Rodriguez unloaded on a 3-2 fastball from Jose Leclerc in the eighth inning, sending a towering fly ball over the wall in center field for the Mariners’ first grand slam of the season, to turn a one-run nail-biter into what would be an easy 8-3 victory — their 12th in a row — Mariners fans of all ages and intensity, knew that somewhere Dave Niehaus was screaming in exultant jubilation, “Get out the rye bread and mustard, grandma, because it’s grand salami time!”
“In that situation, the fans got involved,” Rodriguez said. “It was a really big moment in the game. To be able to come through for the team, that was my top priority. To be able to actually do it was pretty good.”
They could hear it. They could feel it. They missed it. The voice a reminder of better times. The voice of the Mariners, deservingly enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, would’ve ridden the emotional highs, lows and unexpected heights of this season as only he could, and we would’ve known it by the tone in that voice that reminds you of summer.
Well, Niehaus was there for the rookie season of the Mariners’ first superstar, Ken Griffey Jr., and he would’ve reveled in the similarities in the rookie season of the Mariners’ budding superstar.
Damn, Dave would’ve loved Julio.
He would’ve loved him for all that we’ve seen so far, all that he could be and all that he will mean to this city, this fanbase and this organization for years to come.
“I don’t know what else you can say about a 21-year-old,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He’s a joy to watch. He really is. It’s how he plays the game and the intensity he plays with and the competitiveness. It’s been awesome to watch.”
His teammates have stopped being surprised at his poise, and they expect the production.
“What’s really impressive is that he doesn’t let the moment be bigger than it is,” Mariners starter Robbie Ray said. “In that situation, bases loaded and we’re only up by one and a 3-2 count, he gets a good fastball on the top rail, a competitive pitch. To do what he did, it’s just really special to watch him play day in and day out.”
A man of few words on most occasions, Ray has gushed about Rodriguez all season. He knows this just doesn’t happen from rookies.
“The poise he has out there, he carries himself really well, he’s super humble and he works really hard,” Ray said. “He prepares himself for those moments. And it’s really fun to watch.”
The circumstances to continue the Mariners’ winning streak weren’t dire. For much of Friday night, victory seemed like an afterthought as Ray carved up hitters with lively variations of both of his fastballs and a nasty streak for five shutout innings.
“That’s probably the best I’ve felt all year,” Ray said. “I just really needed those two pitches tonight, the slider was OK. But the two-seam and the four-seam playing off of each other played really well tonight. I had a lot of success with it.”
His teammates, including Rodriguez, provided requisite run support with a 4-0 lead going into the sixth inning.
But Ray made a mistake to Corey Seager, leaving his only curveball of the night over the plate. It resulted in a solo homer in the sixth inning. In a seventh inning he couldn’t quite finish, Ray gave up a two-out, two-run homer to Leody Taveras that trimmed the lead to 4-3.
Ray was still brilliant, working 6 2/3 innings, allowing the three runs on six hits with 12 strikeouts and no walks to improve to 8-6.
A night after rallying from a four-run deficit for the biggest come-from-behind win of the season, would the Mariners give away a four-run lead and finally lose their first game in weeks despite such dominance?
Baseball can be so cruel in that way.
And it looked as if their season-long struggles with the bases loaded might be part of the streak ending.
Up a run, the Mariners loaded the bases with no outs against right-hander A.J. Alexy on a single from Cal Raleigh and back-to-back four-pitch walks to Adam Frazier and Abraham Toro. A run of any sort might make the life of the Mariners bullpen easier. Two runs and it would likely be, “We’re still streakin’.”
Rangers manager Chris Woodward brought in Leclerc, the Rangers’ one-time closer who has dealt with a myriad of arm issues, to get them out of trouble. Using his nasty changeup and slider, Leclerc struck out Dylan Moore and Sam Haggerty.
Rodriguez stepped to the plate. His plan remained unchanged: look for a pitch, preferably a fastball, up in the zone and unleash hell. He wouldn’t give in to Leclerc’s slider up for a called strike or chase a changeup at his feet. A fastball down was called for a strike two, which he didn’t agree with. Leclerc tried to get him to chase with two sliders away. Those might’ve worked in the first month of the season. But he “spit” on them for balls.
At 3-2, knowing Leclerc didn’t want to walk in a run, he waited for the fastball and got it.
“I was just going to stay true to myself and just keep looking up,” he said. “I was able to capitalize.”
His first career grand slam was his 16th homer of the season and he finished with a career-high five RBI.
“That’s as good of an at-bat as you’ll see,” Servais said. “Awesome to watch a young talent like that take off and the looks in our dugout when that ball went over the fences were like, ‘Did he just really do that?'”
He did. And it won’t be the last time.