SEATTLE -- October’s lights shine brightest where the stars step up, seemingly go above their elite capabilities and don’t just live up to the moment, but manifest the moment themselves.
Julio Rodríguez has been in the Majors for just six months, yet he’s already showing that he’s built for the postseason, where baseball is hyper-pressurized, turned up to the Nth degree and shot out of a cannon. If some of the epic moments he’s shown in this rookie season have indicated, he can be that playoff firework.
“He's 21 years old, there is a lot to play for,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He likes when the lights are on, and the lights are going to be on. He’s super talented. He doesn’t make moments bigger than they are. He just plays baseball.”
Rodríguez was activated from the 10-day injured list on Monday, having missed the allotted time with a lower back strain that he began experiencing three weeks ago. The star center fielder was leading off and serving as the DH for the first time all season when the Mariners opened their final regular-season series, but he’ll return to full-time center field duties by this weekend’s AL Wild Card Series, per Servais.
Any back injury for a young talent is alarming, and Rodríguez says he’s still unsure of how he suffered the injury. Yet he believes he’s put it behind him, adding: “It’s not going to be a thing.” If that’s the case, Rodríguez could be primed for a big October, and the Mariners will certainly need him.
“I think everybody who has seen us play all year knows that there is a Julio factor,” Servais said. “I think our ownership group realizes it. I think our fanbase realizes it. I think our team realizes it.”
Since a rocky first few weeks in April, when he was also adjusting to some rookie treatment, Rodríguez hasn’t just run away as the AL Rookie of the Year Award favorite, he’s also been one of MLB’s most productive players. Entering Monday, Rodríguez had hit .287/.357/.549 since June 1, for a .906 OPS that ranks 10th-highest among 134 qualified hitters. His 160 wRC+ (league average is 100) in that span is seventh best.
Stats aside, consider the huge moments in which he’s been able to drown out the pressure and deliver:
• The electric Home Run Derby performance in which he finished runner-up but firmly announced himself on the national stage.
• The eighth-inning grand slam in Texas on July 15 that helped the Mariners extend their win streak to an eventual 14 games.
• The late-inning go-ahead, three-run homer on a day when the Mariners couldn’t get anything going on July 27, also against the Rangers.
Many moments like those are what the postseason is built on, and those are just the most significant examples. Rodríguez has also shown increased leadership.
“He's an impossible player not to love when you watch him play,” Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said. “And then even when you get to spend time around him, he's just a fabulous guy, he embodies all those things. But when you watch him on a field, his physical ability is different than most players you'll ever see.
“And when you go in the Wayback Machine and think through all the postseasons past that you've watched, you'll remember the unbelievable pitching performance by a power pitcher who stepped up, and we've got a handful of those guys that I feel like have those capabilities. And then you remember the big moments from the athlete on the field to look bigger than life in that time, and I think Julio has a lot of those traits.”
Robbie Ray, the first-year ace who’s been on playoff teams before, encapsulated it best with recognition of the potential star power on the other side of his new locker room.
“We want those young superstars. Julio Rodríguez, the kid needs to be in the playoffs," Ray said a few weeks back. "The world needs to know who Julio Rodríguez is, and they're going to find out. And I think that it's just going to explode when this team can do that.”