They came to see. To see what imagination, talent and pure, unfiltered joy could conjure up next.
They came for Julio.
And he came through for them.
Julio Rodriguez, ever the showman, launched a go-ahead, three-run home run in the seventh inning, answering the What Can’t This Kid Do? question for another day and lifting the Mariners to a 4-2 victory and a series sweep of the Texas Rangers.
The rookie phenom flipped his bat toward the home dugout, circled the bases and drew a standing ovation from the 25,509 fans who turned out on a hot Wednesday afternoon at T-Mobile Park. They chanted his name in the same rhythm with which they used to sing for Ichiro — Juu-leeee-oooooo — as the kid did things the Mariners haven’t seen since the days of Ken Griffey Jr.
Yes, it’s easy to get carried away with this kid these days, and everyone, it seems, is eager to do just that.
“I think he’s the best player I’ve ever seen,” Mariners starter Marco Gonzales said, shaking his head at Rodriguez’s latest heroics. “He’s for sure the best player I’ve ever played with.”
Rodriguez homered in his first at-bat Tuesday night since participating in his first Home Run Derby last week. Griffey is the only other player in M’s history to hit home runs in his first two games after participating in the Home Run Derby.
It’s something new every day with him, isn’t it?
Wednesday’s home run, off Texas starter Jon Gray, was a 108.5 mph blast off the out-of-town scoreboard beyond the bullpen, 418 feet away, for Rodriguez’s 18th home run of the season and second in as many days since returning from a minor wrist injury.
Gray, untouchable for most of the afternoon, had struck out Rodriguez in the second inning in a similar situation, stranding two runners in scoring position.
Before he came to the plate in the seventh inning, Rodriguez decided to switch bats. His usual bat, he joked later, was still asleep for the day game.
Rodriguez worked a 1-1 count and then turned a high slider from Gray. It was Gray’s 99th pitch of the afternoon, and it might have been his only real mistake.
The rookie continues to show an uncanny ability to deliver in the most crucial moments.
“Just focusing on what matters the most — just me, the pitcher, what he’s about to throw and what I’m about to hit,” Rodriguez said. “I just try to keep it as simple as I can. … I honestly love it. Because I feel like those moments, everybody’s on their feet, everybody’s watching. I just love those moments. If you’re not ready to perform in those moments, then you’re not going to be having the most fun playing this game.”
And how much fun is he having right now?
“A lot. We’re winning games. That’s all that matters. As long as we keep winning, it’s definitely going to keep being fun.”
Mariners manager Scott Servais can feel the excitement building in the clubhouse, and the stands. The Mariners’ 14-game winning streak going into the All-Star break last week made them — and Julio — the talk of baseball. And even after the Mariners were swept by Houston over the weekend, they drew an average of 24,976 fans for the three-game series against the Rangers — a strong turnout for three weekday games — as they held strong to their second spot in the AL wild card standings.
“We have a very starved fan base … and rightly so,” Servais said. “It’s been a while since we’ve made the playoffs. Everybody in this clubhouse knows it. Everybody in our front office knows that. Everyone on our coaching staff knows it. We need to end the drought.
“… It’s just consistent effort day in, day out, doing the little things over and over and over again. And then look up, and I think we’re going to be in a good spot. And the fact that people around town want to get excited about that and talk about that … it’s what baseball is about, and it’s our time. I really believe it.”
The Mariners (54-45) now embark on their most challenging week of the season: four games in Houston (64-35), starting Thursday, and then three in New York against the Yankees (66-32), the two best teams in the AL.
But the Mariners, Servais was quick to note, have been pretty good of late, too — they are 17-3 in their past 20 games and 25-6 in their past 31 games. Which also makes this their most intriguing road trip of the season. If the Mariners, 10 games back of Houston in the AL West, have any chance of being a factor in the division race, they surely have to show something over the next seven days.
“We’re going to continue to grind and see what happens,” Servais said. “There’s something about this team. They show up ready to compete every day.”
The Mariners won their eighth straight over the Rangers behind a solid start from Gonzales, who bounced back from a rough outing in the first game after the All-Star break. On a day when the M’s bullpen was thin, Gonzales delivered seven sharp innings Wednesday, allowing two runs on four hits with one walk and five strikeouts.
“I just wanted to go deep in the ballgame just to give us a chance to win,” Gonzales said. “I think just keeping a civil mindset like that really helped me to focus and be able to accomplish that.”