In basketball, with only five players in a lineup at once, the value of an instant-impact superstar is unquestionably one of the most highly-valued entities in sports, up there with a hot goalie in hockey and a quarterback with the football in their hands the entire time on offense.
Baseball is unique in that it’s so challenging for an individual’s performance to immediately impact winning. Jacob deGrom’s Mets tenure was tragically defined by being a starting pitcher who could go over 6 innings, give up a maximum of two runs, and still get the loss due to a lack of run support.
What we’re seeing right now in Anaheim with first Mike Trout and now Shohei Ohtani, two of the best baseball players we have ever seen, epitomizes what an organizationally-based sport it is with them missing the postseason year after year. It doesn’t matter if Trout can hit for the cycle or if Shohei can strike out ten and then hit a homer in the same game if the team’s ineptitude from building a roster 1 through 9 and the supporting pitching and coaching staff isn’t there. It’s truly a team game through and through.
However, the run that the Seattle Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez and what he’s doing right now may be the closest “I PUT THE TEAM ON MY BACK!” performance that you’d see from someone like Kevin Durant, demanding to always have the ball in the fourth and going scorched Earth to lead their team to victory as the man of the franchise.
After having reached the postseason for the first time in two decades and snapping the longest playoff drought in professional sports last year, rookie sensation Julio Rodriguez signed an extension through 2035 as the Mariners felt like they had arrived as the young team looking to build something and take aim at the champion Astros in their division. This was the first step to something.
The story of 2022 for Seattle? Never get anything going whatsoever.
There was no spark in complete contrast to last year. While the Texas Rangers and Astros have been the two most steady juggernauts that have led the AL West throughout the year, the Mariners failed to be more than 3 games over .500 once during the first half of the year. They’d win, then lose. They’d win, then lose. In a year where Julio was supposed to be the man going forward and benefit from the new rule changes on the basepaths, the Mariners were the epitome of what the kids refer to as “mid” as they mid-ed around “not bad enough to be out of it, but not good enough to get anything going. Julio started off just .249 with a .310 on-base as the Mariners were 45-44 at the break, never having a winning or losing streak of more than 4 games.
When the lights have shined brightest in the moments, from his home run derby performances to this current playoff stretch, Julio has turned it up a notch.
It’s the fourth quarter, and somehow Julio Rodriguez asked to have the ball in his hands a la NBA Superstar.
Since the All-Star Break, Julio has entirely turned his season around and batted .347 in those 34 games with 8 homers, 30 RBI, and 11 stolen bases. The Mariners swept the Astros this weekend, vaulted their way into being just 3 games behind the Rangers for the AL West lead and into an AL Wild Card spot over Toronto, and were led by Julio, setting a record of 17 hits in just four games. In those four wins, he accumulated more hits, runs, and stolen bases than the entire New York Yankees TEAM.
Now, obviously, Julio hasn’t led this Mariners resurgence all by himself; the starting rotation of Castillo, Gilbert, Kirby, and Miller have finally found their groove, and Cal Raleigh and JP Crawford (despite being injured) have hung tough as consistently bats in the lineup as Ty France and Eugenio Suarez have had a down year by comparison to their 2021. Teoscar Hernandez has finally come alive as the power bat that they thought they traded for this offseason.
However, in a sport where you may only get, at best, three chances to make an offensive impact, Julio, in the leadoff spot in the lineup, is having his “I got this, guys” moment you see when Stephen Curry calls isolation plays and hits back-to-back three’s to pull the entire team within reach of a win.
It’s not just that Julio has had this sort of stretch- it’s also what he means to the team and the city.
At just 22 years old, he’s been asked to be the cornerstone of the franchise in their build for the next decade as the grinning, charismatic, live-for-the-moment freak athlete that he is on the field.
His symbol to the veterans and the clubhouse and the fans of the city as the beacon of hope for a decade of contention and fun baseball energizes the entire organization with the palpable buzz that he brings, and that’s a stat that can’t be quantified.
The Mariners went on a 23-7 stretch over the past month, the best in the majors, and raised their playoff odds within one weekend from below 30% to 60%. With them in contention with Texas, Houston, Toronto, and Tampa for the division or the final wild card spots, someone will inevitably not have a seat at the table, but Julio has given them the hot hand.
They’ve got a relatively easy path if they can keep the same energy as they have right now with the White Sox, the Royals, and the A’s twice before ending the year with pivotal division-deciding games against Texas twice and the Astros.
It’s been two years, and we can already identify Julio with one-name basketball superstar identification- that’s how much of an impact he has when he’s swinging the bat like this.
Photo: Julio Rodriguez/Twitter (X)