J-Rod, Kelenic let loose after back-to-back key hits

Youngsters each drive in two in fourth inning against Royals

April 23rd, 2022

SEATTLE -- If Friday night was a precursor for things to come, the kids are all right. 

Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez, the faces of the Mariners’ farm system in successive years who’ve been off to sluggish starts in 2022, were the vessels behind their 4-1 win over the Royals at T-Mobile Park.

On back-to-back pitches in the fourth inning, Rodríguez and Kelenic each lined an extra-base hit into the right-center-field gap that plated two and gave Chris Flexen the backing he needed to go seven strong innings after he had also been off to a slow start this year.

Rodríguez scorched a 112.9 mph double in a full count, just his second hit in 30 at-bats this year with two strikes, and Kelenic legged out his second career triple on a line drive, narrowly out of reach for reigning Gold Glove center fielder Michael A. Taylor.

Both Kelenic and Rodríguez had incredibly emotional reactions in those moments, underscoring their vibrant personalities, but also their mounting frustrations with their lack of production in April. In a combined 92 plate appearances entering Friday, each had just six hits and a combined six RBIs, for a combined slash line of .145/.217/.241 (.458 OPS).

Here’s Rodríguez’s reaction: “I was definitely fired up because we've been dealing with a lot of things back-to-back for a lot of nights now. And being able to deliver, both of us, felt really good.”

And Kelenic: “I think it's huge, especially when we make pitchers throw a lot of pitches. Julio had a good at-bat there, made [Kansas City starter Brad Keller] throw a lot of pitches and allowed guys like myself to see him more and be more comfortable. When I got to the plate, I knew what I was working with.”

Rodríguez and Kelenic arrived in the Majors as not only the headliners in a blossoming Seattle farm system during its overhaul these past three years, but each ranked among the Top 5 prospects in baseball, per MLB Pipeline, at the time of their respective debuts. For these reasons -- and the hope that they will comprise Seattle’s outfield into the late 2020s, if all goes according to plan -- their early careers will naturally be intertwined.

They’ve also had parallels with early-career struggles. Kelenic endured a Minor League demotion three weeks after his debut last year, and Rodríguez ranked second in the Majors with a 44.2 percent strikeout rate two weeks into 2022, in part due to some incredibly tough calls from umpires.

Kelenic and Rodríguez had only shared a regular-season clubhouse prior to this season for a nine-game stint to begin the 2019 season at Single-A West Virginia, which is no longer a Seattle affiliate. Now, they’re here with lockers right next to each other -- and with the hope of living up to those lofty prospect billings as run-producing fixtures in the Majors.

“We just talk about keeping our heads up,” Rodríguez said. “He went through a lot of things his first year. I'm going through a lot of things right now. So, I feel like we’ve just got to rely on each other and keep our heads up. That's the best we could do right now.”

Said Kelenic: “Obviously, there have been some calls that haven’t been going his way. But I'm trying to help him as best as I can to just stay focused, don't expand the strike zone, and he's doing a really good job of not doing that. And you saw, he got a good pitch to hit up in the zone and put a good swing on it and got two RBIs.”

There were also more growing pains for each player on Friday, with Kelenic swinging over a gnarly slider from Royals reliever Joel Payamps for strike three in the eighth and Rodríguez getting rung up for his 14th called strikeout of the year, extending his MLB high.

But Friday was a step in the right direction.

Had it not been for two uncharacteristic errors by shortstop J.P. Crawford the night prior -- which he vindicated with three double plays on Friday -- the Mariners would be 6-1 on their season-opening homestand. Even including the eight shutout innings from Houston’s Justin Verlander last Saturday, their bats have broken out to a .778 OPS, the third-highest in MLB since the homestand began last Friday.

If their promising outfield tandem delivers like it did in this series opener against the Royals, a lineup that already is much improved could be even more threatening as this young season presses forward.