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Extra Base of the Week: Julio Rodríguez is still having fun out there

Is it possible that we’re underrating Julio?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Julio Rodríguez has struggled to open the 2023 season. His 50 wRC+ in May has been the worst mark of any month in his career, even worse than his rookie April, when he hadn’t yet homered and was facing the world’s largest strike zone. And although there are reasons to think he’ll snap out of it, and that our emotional response to this poor stretch might be out of proportion to how bad it actually is, he hasn’t snapped out of it yet. Not feeling too worried isn’t the same as feeling good. This is supposed to be fun after all.

Making matters worse, Julio hasn’t seemed himself at times. The guy we fell in love with reacted to strikeouts like this.

But Saturday wasn’t the first time this month that we’ve seen this instead.

Then again, that dude is still in there. When he faced Tonkin two innings later, he fell behind 0-2, but managed to work a walk, laying off the same pitch that got him in the third inning. That’s the Julio creed at work: I win or I learn.

“You’re damn right,” the look on his face says as he tosses his bat to take first base.

You can’t keep Julio down for long. When Jarred Kelenic singled to right two pitches later, Julio tried to prove he can still go toe-to-toe with the game’s greats. Ronald Acuña Jr. has put his knee injury in the rearview mirror and is leading the league in fWAR, bWAR, and WARP. He’s not just a five-tool player, he’s a five-tool player where every tool jumps out of the tool box. It looks a lot like what we’re hoping to see from Julio, bringing excitement to everything he does.

One of those tools is his arm, which is elite, with Acuña’s 96.5-mph average throw ranking second in baseball. His max velocity of 98.3 mph ties Logan Gilbert’s season-best fastball. But Julio wanted to test Acuña’s cannon by trying to go first to third on a ball that only got to the middle of right field. Iron sharpens iron.

He knew exactly what he was doing, going full throttle the whole way, with his elite speed besting Acuña’s elite arm. As soon as the play was dead, he turns to salute Acuña, and the ensuing playful stare down afterwards is what elevates this to Play of the Week. That look on Acuña’s face says that he knows Julio’s still very much part of the game’s constellation of stars.

The Mariners are struggling, and just as it was foolish to declare the offense fixed after one good game in Fenway, only a fool would say that one good performance against a bullpen day answers any doubts. The Mariners are now 14-23 against teams that aren’t the Rockies, A’s, or Tigers. And despite having a better record than at this point last year, with 2023’s (non-A’s) AL boat-racing the NL in expanded interleague play, it’s a tougher row to hoe to get a playoff spot. This season has often been hard to watch, though you can still be optimistic while also engaging with the team’s flaws. I think that’s a better approach than simply pretending that everything is fine in the name of having a positive attitude. But even as it’s been frustrating to watch so many winnable games slip away, baseball is still just a game. Both parts of that sentence are true. Even in the middle of struggling, Julio’s doing his best to have fun, and we should too.

Honorable Mentions

Logan Adjusts

The first three Braves to face Gilbert on Saturday crushed his fastball. But Logan made an impressive adjustment, going to his splitter 25 times over the rest of the night. I wrote about his new pitch earlier this year, expecting it would help him better manage contact. I didn’t expect that it’d rack up a 47% whiff rate against one of the best lineups in the league. At this point, by RV/100, Gilbert has the second-best splitter in baseball this year among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 20 of them, trailing only Jhoan Duran. This was far from Gilbert’s most dominant outing, but I found it one of his most impressive, especially considering the adjustment and the quality of opponent.

Kirby Carries 97 into the Seventh

After holding 95 into the seventh on Monday, he upped his game in the Georgia heat. Averaging 6.5 innings per start, George Kirby has now logged a quality start in every outing this year since his first. You know how you get a great bullpen? You don’t overtax them.

Geno has J.P.’s back

I don’t know whether the Mariners definitely have the best defensive left side in MLB, though they’d certainly get a decent share of votes. But I will entertain no arguments that another team has a left side that’s this much fun.

Cal Catches a Thief

This is a really tough throw to make on an inside pitch with a lefty in the box blocking Cal’s lane. But notice his impressive footwork, bouncing out when he sees Pablo Reyes take off. Factoring in the pitch location, speed of the runner, and how far he was toward second base by the time Cal gets the ball, Statcast thinks catchers only make this play 29% of the time.

Cal Slays a Monster

Seattle’s switch-hitting catcher does most of his damage from the left side of the plate, as he had earlier Monday evening, taking a Tanner Houck sinker 438 feet into the seats. This, by contrast, was just his fourth career Beef Boy Bomb batting righty, and he saved it for something special. There are few inanimate objects in American sports as iconic as the Green Monster, and hitting a ball over it is a bucket-list accomplishment for a lot of players. But more than that, Cal’s blast made him the first catcher in Fenway Park’s 111-year history to homer from both sides of the plate. That he did so on the same night he caught a runner, and got to do it in front of his childhood hero, Jason Varitek, a switch-hitting catcher who called Fenway home for his whole 15-year career, had to mean more than his humble post-game interview let on. This game gets Cal a special, off-recap Sun Hat Award for individual accomplishment.