Is Mariners slugger Julio Rodriguez about to break out?

Sunday’s performance may be a good omen for the Seattle slugger, who’s been mired in a slump.

  • Matt Calkins, The Seattle Times
  • Monday, May 27, 2024 4:00pm
  • SportsMariners

There he is.

The center fielder who had been front and center as the face of the Seattle Mariners’ offensive woes.

The $210 million-dollar man who had been hitting just 40 points better than .210.

What we’ve seen from Juilo Rodriguez — the 2022 American League Rookie of the Year who finished fourth in the MVP voting a season later — has been more than just a sluggish start. It’s been a legitimate letdown.

Then this weekend happened.

In Seattle’s 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals on Saturday, Rodriguez smacked his third home run of the season, ending an 11-game dinger drought. Sunday, he homered again, tallied three hits total and racked up four RBI in the M’s 9-5, come-from-behind victory over the Nationals.

Perhaps most pertinent was Julio driving in runs in the eighth and ninth inning to spur the first-place Mariners (28-26) to victory at the official one-third mark of the season. The team has been waiting for that all year — and they need a whole lot more of it.

Juxtaposing the Mariners’ pitching and hitting stats is like juxtaposing an Escalade with an Escort. The club is ninth in MLB in ERA but 27th in runs and 24th in OPS — which many consider the truest measure of offensive efficiency.

Coming into Sunday’s game, Rodriguez ranked 147th in MLB in OPS at .618 — .200 points lower than last season’s mark. There were mechanical issues related to his swing and setup. There were discipline issues in regards to his chasing junk. And though the Mariners’ batting issues run deep — from Ty France to Mitch Haniger to Mitch Garver all struggling — Rodriguez was supposed to be the piece of lumber Seattle could rely on.

He hasn’t been. At all. Maybe this is the turning point, though?

Perhaps that seems like an overreaction based on a couple of productive performances. But there are two factors at play. The first is that, for whatever reason, Rodriguez has never started well. The man was hitting .240 through his first 33 games as a rookie. Last year, in what seemed like a certified sophomore slump — he was hitting .204 through his first 44 games.

Through Sunday he was hitting .260 with an OPS of .646. It’s hardly the mark of an All-Star, but it is in line with his habit of warming up late.

Secondly, even his outs have been impressive lately. The box score hasn’t told the whole Julio tale of his recent at-bats. He’s hitting the ball hard, and doing it consistently. Again, it may just be a little stretch of good fortune. Opposing pitchers have had two-plus years to scout Rodriguez, and may have figured out how to keep him at bay.

Then again, we’re talking about one of the most talented players to ever come through the organization — a 23-year-old fresh off a top-10-in-the-big-leagues season. A breakthrough seems inevitable, doesn’t it?

The M’s better hope so. Despite some theatrical victories, this was not a great road trip for Seattle. The Mariners finished 4-6 against the Orioles, Yankees and Nationals, and if not for the comeback on Sunday, they would have headed home wearing a five-game losing streak.

But the comeback happened. And it started when Rodriguez singled to center with one out in the eighth, scoring J.P. Crawford to tie the score at 5-5. J-Rod all but sealed the win an inning later, when he put Seattle up 9-5 with a two-run single.

Rodriguez’s defensive wizardry has remained intact despite his shortcomings in the batter’s box. He has helped his team’s cause on the basepaths as well with his 11 steals this season.

That bat, though. That’s the primary reason he inked that massive deal toward the end of his rookie season. It’s what prompts the “Ju-li-o!” chants throughout T-Mobile Park.

It has just been absent for most of the year, which is why he entered Sunday’s game with a WAR of 0.8, which wasn’t good enough to crack the top 200 in MLB. Yes, according to the supposed all-encompassing player-value stat, Rodriguez wasn’t among the best 200 in the sport.

Mariners fans from every part of the globe are hoping this weekend foreshadowed what’s to come from the Dominican in the latter two-thirds of the season. Despite being just two games above .500, the M’s are still in first place in the AL West by three games. Don’t count out the defending World Series-champion Texas Rangers, though. And definitely don’t dismiss the stacked Houston Astros, lurking just 3 1/2 games back.

Baseball may just be the ultimate team sport. There is no one player you can rely on. If you could, the Angels wouldn’t have missed the playoffs all those years with a healthy Mike Trout and/or Shohei Ohtani.

But the Mariners need Julio. Mercifully, he showed up this weekend. They can’t afford for him to disappear.

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