J-Rod makes roster bid with inside-the-parker

April 1st, 2022

PEORIA, Ariz. -- If Julio Rodríguez wasn’t already in line to make the Mariners’ Opening Day roster, the play he made in Thursday's 3-2 win over the Guardians at the Peoria Sports Complex might’ve made him a lock. 

Seattle’s prized outfield prospect encapsulated nearly all of his elite tools -- speed, baserunning, power, opposite-field drive and instincts -- into one 14-second sequence that could’ve been the final benchmark on his player-development checklist:

An inside-the-park home run.

“First time ever,” Rodríguez said.

How it happened

In a 2-2 count in what he knew would be his final at-bat, Rodríguez ripped a middle-middle breaking ball from Cleveland’s Emmanuel Clase deep to right-center field and immediately turned on his wheels. Traveling with a 105 mph exit velocity, the ball caromed short of the 385-foot sign and back toward the infield with momentum. 

“Off the bat, I knew I got it good. A lot of people might’ve thought it was going out, but in my heart, I knew it was not gone,” Rodríguez said. “So once I saw the ball, I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to put my head down and keep going.”

Center fielder Will Brennan bobbled his pick-up attempt, at which point Rodríguez was surging around second and making the possibility all but inevitable. After a baserunning blunder the day prior, Rodríguez had his sights set squarely on third-base coach Manny Acta, who was flamboyantly waving him home. 

“Today, I picked up on the third-base coach, not like yesterday, and he was just sending me,” Rodríguez said. “I had to make sure I touched the bag because I was sprinting like right away. I feel like, myself, I’m better running in distance, so once I turned second, I got comfortable to keep going. Once he sent me, I was like, ‘OK, we’ve got to score.’”

Rodríguez lost his helmet while blowing by Acta, then he lunged head-first to the plate and beat the cutoff throw handily.

“He’s making this club, Mike,” Mariners broadcaster Dave Simms said to color commentator Mike Blowers in the booth. “He’s making this club!”

What they saw

Mariners manager Scott Servais had perhaps the best vantage point of anyone, on the top rail on the home-plate side of the dugout. Asked what he was thinking as Rodríguez was heading toward third, Servais said, “‘Send him, Manny, send him.’ Let’s find out.”

Rodríguez worked extensively this offseason with Tampa-based trainer Yo Murphy, who has helped many professional athletes, including many in the NFL. It’s paying off.

“He moves so well for as big as he is,” Servais said. “I made a joke the other day, ‘What would he look like if he pads on him in the NFL?’ I mean, that's how he's built and that's how he moves.”

After he emphatically pumped his chest upon scoring, the crowd on hand went wild. Then, an inning later, when he was leaving the field, they gave him a roaring ovation. On the loudspeaker, Pitbull was playing. The lyrics: “I’m on fire.”

“It felt really good,” Rodríguez said of the recognition. “Just like the love that the Mariners fans show me. Not just the Mariners fans, but every single baseball fan, that they’re showing. I really enjoy that. It’s a really cool feeling.”

What it means

Beyond the ambition of making the team, Rodríguez set out to show off his speed, a tool that many before this spring might’ve known about, but if so, remotely.

“Now they know,” Rodríguez said. “Now they know.”

Aside from three strikeouts on breaking balls and an unnecessary slide into third base on Wednesday that cost Seattle a run, he’s been a standout. Beyond the raw tools, the Mariners are bullish on his mental makeup.

“He had a rough day yesterday, but to his credit shows up today with a smile on his face, ready to go to work,” Servais said. “And we talked about it. He’ll learn from it. It certainly didn't affect him tonight, no holdover in a negative way at all.”

After the inside-the-parker, Rodriguez is hitting .360/.429/.720 (1.149 OPS) in 25 at-bats over 10 Cactus League games -- tied for the most playing time on the team, which in itself suggests that the Mariners are giving him every opportunity to play his way on to the roster. And he’s seemingly checking every box.

“It’s just such a high, high ceiling, you know what I mean?” Servais said. “And that's what excites everybody that's around him. Any coach, anybody that's been around him, it’s like, ‘If all comes together.’ The talent, the confidence is there, how he carries himself and he’s just a good teammate. This is a fun kid to be around.”

Servais wasn’t asked point blank if Rodríguez will make the team postgame. Servais wouldn’t say. He'd want to tell the player first. But while dancing around the notion, he left it open-ended.

“We can go on and on,” Servais said of the superlatives. “We've got a few games left to play in the spring and we'll see how it plays out from there. But I couldn't be any happier with how he’s played out.”

What about Rodríguez? What does he feel he still has to prove?

“I don’t know, I feel like I have to keep doing it on a daily basis,” he said smiling, tongue-in-cheek.