Sitting in his room in Peoria, Arizona, on a recent Sunday night, Julio Rodriguez took a break from video games to watch the thrilling, back-and-forth action between the Atlants Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.
He could feel the playoff intensity and loved seeing the booming homers and bat flips, the highlight-reel defensive plays, the dugout craziness between teammates after each play.
“Those games are cool,” he said. “I want to play in them so bad.”
But the unforgettable looks of dejection and pain on the faces of the Braves players such as Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman as they endured Dodgers’ victory celebration made him amend his previous statement.
“But I don’t want to lose, that’s the thing,” he said. “I was talking to the guys and I told them, whenever I get a chance to get to go there, I want to win and win. I was looking at the other team and it looked heartbreaking. Whenever I get the opportunity to be there, I’m gonna give my all to win.”
For now, his focus must remain on playing and winning at-bats and games during 24 instructional-league games in Arizona. He is one of 40 minor-league players invited by the Mariners to participate in the six-week league that features five other organizations.
“It’s been pretty good,” Rodriguez said of the instructional league play and workouts. “The games feel really good. The games are really competitive. I like them. It’s a good environment to play in.”
Rodriguez has been better than pretty good. In some box scores released by the Mariners, he had four hits in 11 at-bats with a double and a homer to right-center. He’s hit multiple balls with exit velocities exceeding 107 mph, including two at 110 mph.
“It’s been really exciting to be playing again, just being on the field again and running around,” he said. “It’s a great feeling.”
Hearing the Mariners’ No. 1 or No. 2 prospect talk about winning MLB postseason games as if it’s an inevitability and not a far-off dream will only add to Rodriguez’s immense popularity with the Mariners and their fans. With his mixture of size, athleticism, charisma and baseball talent, including limitless power potential, fans and many scouts believe he will be the team’s next superstar. And Rodriguez embraces it all with an infectious smile and precocious spirit.
But as to when he will reach those lofty expectations is difficult to predict. As so many young players, his 2020 minor-league season ended before it started due to the spread of COVID-19. Last season was supposed to be seminal in his development and inch him closer to the big leagues with a potential debut looking like mid-2022, if not before.
After earning his first invite to big-league spring training, he was an obvious invite to attend summer camp in July and continue to work out at the alternate training site in Tacoma to further his skills and development.
But on July 16, less than a week after clearing intake testing, Rodriguez dived awkwardly for low line drive in a drill, jamming his glove into the turf of T-Mobile Park. He suffered a hairline fracture in his left wrist that sidelined him from on-field workouts and intrasquad games at Cheney Stadium.
It wasn’t the first time he’s dealt with a fluky hand-wrist injury.
Early in the 2019 season, while playing for Low-A West Virginia, he was struck in the left hand by a 92-mph fastball and suffered a hairline fracture in the third metacarpal. It kept him out almost two months.
Admittedly, he couldn’t help but lament his bad injury luck striking again.
“I was frustrated,” he said. “But I just took it like it’s part of baseball. That’s something I cannot control. That’s something that just happened because I was playing hard. At first, I was kind of sad, but the guys there told me — if we see you being sad, that’s not your personality. You need to understand it’s part of baseball. I just took it like that.”
He also didn’t just sit around and pout. Despite having a cast on his left wrist, he remained highly active. He took hundreds of one-handed swings with his right arm, conditioned his legs and kept his throwing arm active.
“It was really important,” he said. “Once I got that feeling out of my wrist, I was able to do everything. The guys held me accountable. I didn’t lose any time.”
The injuries in each season also offered a perspective not typical of a 19-year-old.
“I’ve learned everything is mental to be honest,” Rodriguez said. “If you want to improve, it doesn’t matter if you have a broken arm. If you want to improve, you can still do it. There’s no excuses.”
The instructional league gives Rodriguez a chance to continue that improvement and get back some of those lost at-bats. It also serves as a training camp for Rodriguez before he reports to Leones del Escogido of the Dominican Winter League the first week of November.
With the time missed at the alternate training site and no minor-league season, the Mariners decided to allow Rodriguez to play in his native Dominican Republic to make up lost ground. Leones selected Rodriguez with the No. 4 overall choice of the league’s draft in September 2019. Under normal circumstances, the Mariners wouldn’t have let Rodriguez play in more than a handful of games, if any at all.
“Man, it means a lot to me,” he said. “I’m really grateful for the Mariners that allowed me to play. That was the first professional baseball I knew. While I was growing up, I liked watching all of those teams, I would get so excited. And now that I’m part of a team, and now that I’m actually gonna play in the DR with everybody watching me over there, it’s just like a dream come true.”
Rodriguez won’t get to have the full Dominican Winter League experience with fans not expected to be allowed in games at first. However, he hopes fans, particularly family and friends, eventually will be allowed into games later in the season
“It’s just crazy,” he said of the normal atmosphere. “It’s such a different environment. People get like a lot of hype for those games. Baseball is everything over there. It just seems like everybody supports those teams because it means everything.”
With or without fans, the level of intensity will be greater than anything he’s experienced in professional baseball. Unlike the player development aspect and goals of the minor leagues, the daily game results are the top priority in the Dominican League.
“Over there, you are playing to win,” Rodriguez said. “You are actually playing for a championship. … It will be more intense because it’s a shorter season. The pitchers are actually really good there too. You have to win there. It’s the same mentality as playing in the big leagues.”
And because there is a championship, Rodriguez expects to be playing in it.
“I plan on playing the whole season there,” he said. “There is like 30 games in the regular season, but I’m hoping for us to go to the playoffs and win everything. That’s my mindset going in there. I feel like I’m going to get in 50 games or more.
“I feel really fortunate for this opportunity. Not a lot of people are getting this opportunity right now. Being able to play, it’s great for me, for real.”
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