J-Rod steps up at key time: 'He lives for that moment'

Rookie's composure, late two-run homer impress after benches clear vs. Houston

June 7th, 2022

HOUSTON -- Julio Rodríguez has said from the get-go that he wants to relish the grand stage, and on Monday, he dramatically delivered when the platform presented itself.

Moments after the benches cleared between the Mariners and Astros, Rodríguez punctuated the palpable tension at Minute Maid Park with a 360-foot shot into the right-field seats, skipping his way to first base and hanging on to his bat halfway down the line. It marked the final punctuation mark in an eventful series-opening 7-4 win for Seattle.

Aside from the Mariners conquering a venue that has haunted them since 2019, the 21-year-old Rodríguez -- fresh off being named the AL Rookie of the Month for May -- showed impressive poise to put aside the emotional weight that had spilled onto the field just before.

Ty France was hit by a pitch on his back that wasn’t immediately called by home-plate umpire Chris Guccione, at which point Mariners manager Scott Servais halted play to potentially call for a review. Across the diamond, barking ensued from the Astros' dugout, which in turn evoked a vibrant response from Seattle’s, and all of a sudden, both benches and bullpens had cleared.

“I feel like I never left my zone,” Rodríguez said. “I knew that we had a whole situation going on, but I was like, 'I've got to be ready to hit.' At the end of the day, I don't know about that whole situation, but I just needed to stay locked in and be able to deliver for the team.”

Rodríguez was even seen, in good faith, restraining Houston reliever and fellow Dominican Republic native Héctor Neris before the fracas reached a boiling point.

The two are acquaintances, having trained together the past few offseasons in Tampa, Fla., with performance coach Yo Murphy -- whom Rodríguez has credited to his big uptick in speed. 

But once both dug back in following the dugout-emptying dust-up, that mutual camaraderie was gone -- there was a game to win, after all.

“At the end of the day, he's on the other team,” Rodríguez said. “I play for the Mariners, and we've got to compete. ... I definitely was fired up. I never really talk or yell during my homers, but given the situation, I felt like I needed to and I kind of let all my emotions go out.”

After the dust had settled, Seattle won for the fifth time on this three-city road weave that concludes in Houston, ensuring its first winning road trip this season.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that emotions were particularly high given the venue, Minute Maid Park, where the Mariners entered the night 4-26 since the start of 2019 and were swept here one month ago.

“This place hasn't been kind to us, and we need to turn it,” said Servais, who was ejected for arguing during the benches-clearing incident. “Sometimes, a little emotion and playing on edge helps, and our guys responded there late in the game.”

Rodríguez was part of a collective effort that helped Seattle overcome a shaky start from Robbie Ray and navigate to the finish line of a huge win -- one that before his homer looked like it was going to need every last pitch to accomplish.

Catcher Cal Raleigh drove in four of the Mariners’ seven runs, a career high, thanks to a three-run homer in the second and an RBI single in the fourth that proved to be the decisive run.

Then, Penn Murfee, Ryan Borucki, Sergio Romo and Diego Castillo shut the door by going scoreless for the final 12 outs -- on a night where Paul Sewald was not available, having pitched three of the past four games.

But back to Rodríguez.

“It says he likes it when his blood is running hot,” Servais said. “Some players play better. Julio plays better. He plays good all the time. But some guys step up in those moments. You get a little emotional. You get a little edge to you.”

Even in their month-long tumble from late April to late May, Rodríguez has been a constant bright spot. On defense, he ranks in the 93rd percentile in outs above average. On the basepaths, he has an MLB-leading 17 stolen bases. And at the plate, he hits the ball as hard as the game’s most elite sluggers, and with all-field ability.

But the tools only take a player so far, and Rodríguez has stayed true to his approach despite some challenging calls early in the season. He’s begun to hit secondary pitching at a more advanced level -- and now the power has begun to take off. His .526 slugging percentage since May 1 leads the team.

Through the highs and lows, Rodríguez has carried the same positive persona. He was smiling while bear-hugging Neris behind the mound as a gesture of trying to calm the tempers. The composure he kept on Monday, despite the adrenaline-inducing atmosphere, impressed everyone.

“It's super rare, but it just shows where he's at mentally,” Ray said. “He's got a good head on his shoulders, and he's humble. But he lives for that moment, and it's fun to watch him when he comes through in those moments. Just seeing that 21-year-old come out as he's running the bases, it's really fun to watch.”