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Seattle Mariners

Commentary: Julio Rodriguez gives Mariners fans plenty to cheer for through struggling stretch of season

Larry Stone Seattle Times

The Mariners’ season has been going up in flames. Their once-bright playoff hopes are on the verge of being extinguished, with Friday’s 6-1 win over Houston a rare joyful outing. Doom and gloom is a constant mood.

And yet there is one saving grace in this troubled year, a reason to pay attention even as the losses mount. While it won’t soothe the frustration of what appears to be another year locked out of the postseason — the drought is now of legal drinking age — this development can’t help but appeal massively to one’s baseball sensibilities.

We are watching, before our very eyes, the unveiling of a true phenom in Julio Rodriguez. At a time when so many touted Mariners prospects have turned to mush when they reach the top level, Rodriguez has been, if anything, better than anyone dared hope. The level of hype accompanying him was unyielding, setting him up for another in a long line of letdowns. And yet Rodriguez has shown exactly what all the fuss was about while at the same time giving off an aura that makes you think he hasn’t even scratched the surface. He just ripples with potential while providing present-day production.

That is not to say, mind you, that Rodriguez is a lock for superstardom (though I like his chances May 27 even more than I did April 8). At age 21, he’s certainly not a finished product. He’ll have his growing pains and slumps. Fifty-five strikeouts in 165 at-bats heading into Friday jumps out at you. Pitchers will continue to expose his weaknesses, and he’ll have to show he can keep adjusting.

But what we’ve seen so far has given every indication that Rodriguez is up to that challenge — buoyed even more Friday by his two-run homer in the first inning off future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander, who is at the full height of his powers this season. It’s clear by now that no pitcher, from Max Scherzer to Verlander, intimidates the youngster.

Manager Scott Servais is particularly impressed with the way Rodriguez responded to his frustrating start in which it seemed like umpires were somehow testing Rodriguez by ringing him up on pitches out of the strike zone. Twelve games into his career, following a four-strikeout game against Texas, Rodriguez’s average stood at .136 and he had 22 strikeouts in 44 at-bats, an unsustainable 50% whiff rate. There were whispers that he had been rushed to the majors and just wasn’t ready.

But while similarly slow-starting Jarred Kelenic let his frustrations eat away at him visibly, Rodriguez seemed unperturbed. He handled it with the aplomb of a veteran, and slowly his fortunes began to turn. From that nadir April 21 through Friday’s game with Houston, Rodriguez hit .314 over the next 34 games, with a .362 on-base percentage and .496 slugging.

Those are All-Star numbers, and they appear to be still on the ascent. You can see Rodriguez’s confidence and self-assurance grow with every game. But it takes a lot of belief in oneself to have not faltered in the first place.

“We can talk about Julio’s character and how mature he is, and the way he plays the game with a smile on his face,’’ Servais said. “But until you see it play out — can he keep that level of confidence and belief in himself when things weren’t going his way? And they certainly were not going his way the first couple of weeks. It seemed like every called third strike that was on the edge was not going his way. And he did not waver. He did not get off of who he is. He stayed with it. And he just said: “Hey, man, it’ll even out. It’s part of the process. Part of the process.”

“The thing makes me more proud watching him is how he hasn’t wavered,” Servais said. “And that’s really hard to do. I don’t think people can understand how hard that is to do for a young player when you get to the big leagues for the first time.”

Servais points out that Rodriguez has played outstanding defense in center field from day one and has been a force on the basepaths with an MLB-leading 13 steals. The power has been slower to come, but his average exit-velocity rank of 91.6 ranks 18th in the American League and 30th in MLB, hinting of an imminent power explosion. Rodriguez had three homers in his last seven games coming into Friday.

“I’m OK with him hitting a lot of ground balls,’’ Servais said. “At this point, everybody says he’s got to hit the ball in the air; power comes later. Just be a good hitter, be a tough out, handle pitches in different parts of the strikes zone, use the whole field to hit.

“And he is becoming a tougher out. And he’s learning how to handle bigger moments in games. I think you’ve seen that. He’s had some crucial at-bats later in the game with some guys on base, learning what it’s like to go through those at-bats against pitchers he’s never seen before, bullpen guys throwing 100 with nasty breaking stuff. And he’s learning. It’s constant learning every day for him. And he does it with a smile on his face. He’s fun to be around.”

It is that fun factor exuded by J-Rod that perhaps stands out the most. He simply has an “it” factor that can’t be quantified, but which has been apparent since he first arrived in camp as an 18-year-old. On Friday, typically, he interacted easily, and voluntarily, with a group of youngsters who were on the field during batting practice. His friendliness and charisma come across as genuine, not contrived or calculated.

Barring a miraculous collective turnaround, not even Julio Rodriguez can save the Mariners’ season. But he can provide a measure of hope and even joy amid the wreckage.