PEORIA, Ariz. — In a sport with endless games and players are taught to dispense of their most recent results — good or bad — from their memory and focus on the day and game ahead, you know you’ve done something special when people are still talking about your accomplishment 24 hours later.
Then again, the echoing crack from the collision of Julio Rodriguez’s maple bat being unleashed on a baseball thrown at 98 mph could probably still be heard in the Phoenix Valley a day later.
And when/if Rodriguez reaches the Major League Baseball superstardom that scouts and analysts have predicted, that Mariners’ fans can’t help but dream about and that the organization has staked a large portion of its rebuild upon, well, his first Cactus League homer — a preposterous display of talent, power and potential — will be something more than anecdote.
“Remember that homer Julio hit against the Rangers in spring training?”
“That’s not as far as the homer he hit in spring training in 2021.”
Yes, it’s only a spring training home run. But to those who care about the Mariners, it was so much more. It represented hope of a better future featuring a real superstar player that was their own.
On cooler-than-normal Tuesday evening, Rodriguez stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter for designated hitter Tom Murphy. The Mariners were already routing the Royals, having racked up 11 runs.
Facing hard-throwing right-hander Carlos Hernandez, the No. 15 prospect in the Royals organization, Rodriguez worked himself a 3-1 count. Understanding that Hernandez’s best pitch was a fastball, Rodriguez was looking for one and got it.
It didn’t matter that the pitch was 98 mph. The location was right in his power zone.
His front foot hit the ground, his hips exploded forward and the bat followed, knifing through the strike zone and connecting with the ball right on the sweet spot.
The ball came off the bat looking like a line drive, probably 20 feet off the ground. But it was hit so hard — a 115 mph exit velocity — and had so much backspin, it just kept rising and carrying. It landed 437 feet away from home plate on the grass berm behind the wall in deep right-center of Surprise Stadium.
“That’s my best swing,” he said Wednesday. “In that at-bat, I did everything I try to look for and do. I worked a good count. I got a fastball middle-middle and I wanted to drive it to center or right-center field. That’s my approach.”
While fans in the stands gasped at first and then cheered, the Mariners dugout was left stunned by the 19-year-old phenom.
“Everybody in the dugout was just like, ‘wow,’ veteran players young players, coaches all of us, it was pretty special,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said.
Rodriguez ran hard out of the box, but was quickly into his home-run trot. As he rounded first base, he flashed that his megawatt smile that comes so natural to him.
“It felt really good to be honest,” he said. “When I hit it, it had the feeling like I hit it really hard. Off the bat, it was really low. But once it got past the infield, I was like, ‘OK, it’s gone.’”
The homer had a similar trajectory to those hit by Nelson Cruz, but never at such a young age.
“I can’t believe he hit that ball as hard as he did,” Servais said after the game. “I’ve been around this game a long time. To see a young guy like that turn around a 97-98 mph fastball and drive it out of the park like that, you don’t see that very often. He’s really a special talent.”
This sort of result had been building in the last four or five games Rodriguez had played in. He had figured out his timing on fastballs and replaced any hesitation with aggressiveness in his approach.
“I felt really comfortable, taking pitches and swinging at good pitches,” he said. “I wasn’t getting results, but I knew at some point it was going to come because I was putting the work in.”
Rodriguez had two more at-bats in the game. He hit a rocket ground ball that ate up the Royals shortstop for an error and scored a run. In his final at-bat, he hit a hard ground ball that bounced into the outfield grass. Rodriguez sprinted out of the box, showing his underrated speed and turned it into a sliding double.
“A lot of people play down my speed,” he said. “I’m going to show people. When you see the video of that, whenever they got the ball, I was already between first and second. They are going to realize, ‘Oh this guy can run now. It’s a whole different ballgame.’”
While Rodriguez ran well enough since being signed as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, he wanted to change the growing perception that he was turning into a power-first, power-only slugger.
“My dad always taught me to want to be a baseball player,” he said. “I never wanted to be just a hitter. As a kid, I was always a good hitter. Everybody loved to label me as just a hitter. But my mentality always has been, ‘I want to be a baseball player.’ I want to be a guy that can play defense, a guy that can run, that can throw, that can do everything on the baseball field. That’s my mentality going into the offseason. To do that I had to put the work in. It’s showing.”
After a brief stint playing in the Dominican professional league, Rodriguez returned to the Tampa area and began working out and then hitting for 5-6 hours each day. He changed his focus, his routines and eating habits. He reshaped his body, melting fat and adding muscle, showing up to camp trim and cut.
“I just didn’t really expect that,” Servais said. “You kind of assume that he’s going to continue to get bigger and maybe slow down a bit. He’s gone the opposite way. He’s training specifically. He doesn’t want to just be a slugger. He wants to be a baseball player.”
The Mariners give every player a “BVY” plan, which stands for best version of yourself, going into every offseason. But Rodriguez took his best version beyond the Mariners’ expectations, assuming personal responsibility of his trajectory.
“Ultimately it’s up to the player,” Servais said. “They’ve got to make the decisions on what they’re going to do and how they’re going to eat, how they’re going to work out and how they’re going to treat their offseason. Julio made a lot of really good decisions obviously.”
Rodriguez called it the most successful offseason he’s ever had in his young career. And based on how he feels and how he’s performing, he can’t imagine not doing the same thing every offseason.
“I see a lot of work in my future,” he said. “I feel like this offseason taught me how to work. I never get satisfied with anything. I know I’m at a certain level right now, but there’s another level after the one I’m at right now that I’m trying to reach.”