'Flex,' J-Rod power Seattle to Interleague opener win 

Flexen K's a career-high-tying eight while Rodríguez goes deep

July 5th, 2022

SAN DIEGO -- Each time Chris Flexen takes the mound at Petco Park, it proves to be a memorable outing. Each time Julio Rodríguez steps onto a Major League field -- anywhere, any day -- he seems to do something extraordinary.

Both things held true Monday afternoon as the Mariners continued their recent surge with an 8-2 victory over the Padres at Petco Park. Flexen matched his career high with eight strikeouts while throwing 6 2/3 scoreless innings, his best outing of the season. Rodríguez, meanwhile, provided another visual delight of a home run -- the 15th of his budding MLB career and one worthy of a Statcast deep dive.

The Mariners, winners of six of their past seven games, have taken four straight series and moved within two games of .500 at 40-42. By prevailing in the opener Monday, they have assured at least a split of the two-game cameo in San Diego.

“Great way to spend the Fourth of July,” manager Scott Servais said. “A complete game, really had it all going today.”

There were plenty of contributors to the latest victory, notably J.P Crawford (three hits in his first game back from suspension), Cal Raleigh (four RBIs) and Marcus Wilson (first MLB hit). But Flexen and Rodríguez had the Mariners well on their way before four innings were complete.

Let’s dive in on those two:

J-Rod with another jaw-dropper
The Mariners were up, 2-0, when Rodríguez came to the plate with a runner aboard in the top of the fourth inning. It quickly became 4-0 as the 21-year-old rookie crushed an inside changeup from veteran left-hander Sean Manaea on a 2-0 count. The ball climbed to the top deck of the Western Metal Supply Co. building down the left-field line.

It was only the 30th top shelf homer to that landmark feature during the regular season since Petco Park opened in 2004, according to Padres scoreboard information guru Jeff Praught. That’s notable enough, but it doesn’t completely explain the extraordinary nature of this home run.

Statcast captured 108.3 mph exit velocity, a 30-degree launch angle and projected distance of 429 feet. Against a changeup. Only five other home runs off changeups this year have matched or bettered all three of those metrics: two by Yordan Alvarez and one each by Garrett Cooper, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Schwarber.

“See it and hit it, I guess,” Rodríguez said. “That’s what I try to do every time I’m at the plate. Just be ready if you see something.”

None of those previous five were on pitches as far inside as the one Rodríguez crushed. Manaea got the ball a bit higher than intended, sure, but it was on the inside corner. Most hitters, if they do anything more than nub it up the third-base line, would pull it foul. Rodríguez, it has been established over his first 81 MLB games, is not most hitters.

“He’s talented,” Servais said. “He’s not trying to hit home runs; he’s just trying to square up the ball. Home runs come in bunches, and he’s in one of those stretches right now. Everything he hits is getting in the air and is on the barrel. Pretty talented kid.”

Flexen flexes
Flexen made his big league debut at Petco Park in 2017, lasting three innings in a loss for the Mets. (Jacob deGrom pinch-hit for him in the top of the fourth that night.)

Flexen’s next appearance in Petco Park came with the Mariners last season, and it proved to be the right-hander’s shortest in the Majors: 1 2/3 innings with career worsts of 10 hits and eight runs allowed. That outing sparked a turnaround in Flexen’s 2021 season. He was 10-4 with a 3.17 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 23 starts thereafter.

“They kicked my [butt] last time, plain and simple,” Flexen said. “I just wanted to come here and win a ballgame.”

Flexen got multiple whiffs from all four of his pitches -- fastball, cutter, slider and changeup en route to the eight strikeouts. He was able to pull out a K when he needed one, too -- striking out Luke Voit and Eric Hosmer with a runner in scoring position in the fourth inning.

“It’s a trend I hope continues,” Flexen added.

The performance Monday might indicate the spark for 2022 has already been lit. Flexen held the Padres to four singles and three walks, while recording his first scoreless start of the year. His ERA, an even 4.00, still is the caboose in the locomotive that is the Mariners’ rotation, but it’s now below the MLB average ERA of 4.01.

“It’s looking like Chris did last year,” said catcher Raleigh. “He does a really good job of competing each time.”