Emotional Yariel Rodríguez 'electric' in MLB debut

April 13th, 2024

TORONTO -- It felt like a WWE entrance. My god, that’s Yariel’s music!

appeared out of the Blue Jays’ dugout and skipped across the turf in four sideways gallops before he spit water into the air and bolted for the mound. If this were the main event, Rodríguez would have stood frozen atop that mound as the crowd’s roar built with the camera zoomed in, steady on his eyes. His eyes tell you everything.

Rodríguez’s big league debut had a feeling to it, an energy, an intensity vibrating out of those glacier blues. The Cuban right-hander -- the first from his country to start a game for this organization -- held the Rockies to one run over 3 2/3 innings with six strikeouts in the 5-3 win, showing flashes of a pitcher with the potential to change the shape of this staff.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment my entire life,” Rodríguez said through a club interpreter. “A lot of sacrifices, a lot of hard work. It was very, very emotional.”

From the first pitch, there was spice. Rodríguez mixed in hesitations to his delivery and played with arm angles, doing everything he could to get hitters off balance. That might have helped him get away with a few sliders that hung out over the heart of the plate, but when Rodríguez was spotting that pitch, it looked downright dominant.

One of his best ended the first inning, barreling down and in on Ryan McMahon. As he swung over top of it, there went Rodríguez again, skipping back off the mound in the same direction he came as he pounded his chest and pumped his fist. Rodríguez wasn’t just looking in the mirror, either.

When Vladimir Guerrero Jr. caught a harmless pop fly to end the second frame, there was Rodríguez a few feet away, celebrating in the same way with his teammates.

“We really couldn’t have asked for much more,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “He was electric. His slider was great with a lot of swing and miss. His heater was great. He kept his composure. That was a pretty [darn] good Major League debut.”

There are a thousand different ways to build a baseball team. The next great Blue Jays team doesn’t need to match the personality of those 2015-16 clubs, who were just as capable of winning a bar fight as a ballgame, but that’s what made a country fall in love with them. They were the team the rest of the league loved to hate, and in the most complimentary way possible, there’s some of that here.

There’s a vibrancy to Rodríguez’s game that is so intoxicating to watch. He’s more whisky than chamomile tea. There’s an edge to it all.

“He’s not scared," Schneider said before the game. "Any time you arrive at this spot the way he has arrived here, with the things he has been through, you’re not scared of much. That’s a good thing. He does a lot of things really well. He controls the running game, he fields his position and he has all of the things you’re looking for in the package of a pitcher. He’s got a good presence about him. I like it.”

When Rodríguez stepped out of the Blue Jays’ clubhouse after the game, music still rattling the walls behind him, all of that emotion came out as excitement. Not only has Rodríguez made it to the stage he’s spent his life chasing, he stuck the landing. He nailed the first impression.

Asked what he liked about his pitching, emotions aside, Rodríguez lights back up once again.

“Everything. Everything,” Rodríguez said. “My first outing, since the very first inning, I went out there to give the best of me. The adrenaline was very high, but everything. Everything. It was very emotional.”

There will come days that aren’t as celebratory. Rodríguez will settle into his groove, living in a role that could take a few different shapes as the year wears on, and the ups and downs of the big leagues will surely come.

Saturday’s performance doesn’t change anything about who the Blue Jays think Rodríguez can be -- they believed enough to sign the guy -- but this added some reality to it all. For a 26-year-old who has walked Rodríguez’s path and didn’t pitch professionally in 2023, this moment was so important.

Now, all he has to do is put on a show again, again and again. Thankfully for Rodríguez, they tend to keep bringing back the crowd favorites.