Rodríguez's 1st hit jolts Mariners awake, sparks rally

April 10th, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- Julio Rodríguez jokingly told manager Scott Servais early Saturday morning that he was so overwhelmed with the emotions of his Major League debut the previous day that he felt like he was in a movie and that he didn’t “wake up” until the seventh inning.

Hours later, after three called strikeouts -- and as the frustration of possibly going 0-fer through his first two games was beginning to mount -- the club's No. 1 prospect truly awoke in the ninth inning of the Mariners’ 4-3 win at Target Field.

Seattle’s 21-year-old center fielder led off the final frame by roping a middle-middle fastball from Minnesota reliever Tyler Duffey into the left-center gap and surging into second base standing, his helmet whirling off. Rodríguez pumped his chest, facing the dugout, and pointed to his family in the stands before he zeroed back in -- there was a ballgame to win.

After leading late, the Mariners fell behind by one run and were headed to what was looking like a deflating defeat. Yet after Rodríguez’s knock, J.P. Crawford advanced the rookie to third base and set up new leadoff man Adam Frazier -- also hitless and frustrated -- for a two-out double that plated Rodríguez as the game-tying run. Ty France immediately followed by dispensing an off-the-plate breaking ball into right field to score Frazier for the lead.

All of a sudden, the Mariners were on their way to a victory.

“Just trying to be able to get something going for the team, and score that run, too, it was really important to me,” Rodríguez said. “I know the double was pretty cool, but that run definitely mattered the most to me. ... You can do whatever you want on the field, but if you don't help your team win, I feel like it's pointless. That's the way I view it.”

Seattle spoiled what was shaping up to be a big win for the Twins, who had dramatically taken the lead in the eighth on a go-ahead 436-foot homer from Byron Buxton that reached the third deck.

Buxton had taken reliever Andrés Muñoz deep on the first pitch, a 101-mph fastball at the top of the zone, to which Mariners catcher Tom Murphy said: “I couldn't believe it. I really couldn't believe it. Like, I was looking for a popup for half a second before I saw the trajectory of the ball, and it's just insane that somebody can do that to a baseball.”

But that homer was seemingly little worry for a club that led the Majors with 33 wins in one-run games last season and now have two such victories to begin 2022. And, for trivia's sake, the game marked just the second time in franchise history that the Mariners won each of their first two games by one run, the other instance being 1996 against the White Sox.

“There's no panic with this team,” France said. “One through nine, we can get it done. We trust each and every guy, whoever is stepping up to the plate. Julio -- he hasn't had a hit yet, it’s the ninth inning [and] he just goes out and does it. Anyone in this lineup can get it done.”

Batting seventh, Rodríguez provided a much-needed jolt from the lower half of the lineup, a contribution that Seattle often didn’t have in 2021. On Saturday, the Nos. 7-9 hitters -- including Murphy with a 423-foot opposite-field homer in the nine-hole -- accounted for five of the club’s nine hits. Last year those spots provided just a .203/.284/.352 (.636 OPS) slash line worth of production, which was in part why the Mariners acquired former All-Stars Frazier, Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez to add more consistency.

“That was kind of our vision coming into the season, that the upper half doesn't have to always do it,” Murphy said. “It just creates that depth that, hopefully, one through nine is gonna be able to contribute.”

Circling back to Rodríguez’s joke with Servais -- there was credence to the humor.

The rookie looked mostly overwhelmed in his first 24-plus hours in The Show, with nothing even close to show for his first seven at-bats. He was baffled by Twins rookie Johan Duran’s elite stuff on Friday (as were the rest of the Mariners), and then he was a victim of perhaps a wider strike zone in his early at-bats Saturday. He also battled windy conditions while still looking eager in center field.

“It's been a struggle for him so far,” Servais said. “I think he's seen more breaking balls, and certainly quality breaking balls. He's never seen that stuff before, and that's what he's going to get, and he’s going to continue to get it until he lays off and makes some adjustments -- and he will. But again, in that [ninth-inning] moment, you're not worried about your first hit. You worry about getting on base, and all of a sudden big things happen when you focus on little things.”

As for the keepsake of his first big league hit, Rodríguez said he plans to send the ball home with his parents, who made the trek to Minnesota from the Dominican Republic.