Of course we all wanted it.
Everyone in the building wanted it.
He must have wanted it, so badly: Julio Rodríguez, striding to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning with the game on the line, two outs, one on, and the AL down a run. It’s the kind of thing you dream about as a kid in the backyard. It’s the kind of thing a fan doesn’t know they dream of until the scenario unfolds itself before one’s very eyes, as beautiful and improbable as a butterfly unfurling its new wings.
It was set up to be magical, storybook, the kind of highlight that would play on a loop in T-Mobile Park until the building crumbles into the sea. It would have been one of those moments that have been so few and fleeting as a Mariners fan: our superstar, in our house, making a lifetime memory, making the Mariners and our far-away corner of the baseball world—for a moment, at least—the center. The kind of undeniable, maps-begin-here relevancy that seems baked into the marrow of Yankees fans, the inevitable expectation of glory that has warmed Dodgers fans like the sun over Chavez Ravine.
And as badly as Mariners fans wanted it, you know Julio wanted it all that much and more: to say thank you to the fan base and the city that’s lifted him up as their own, that’s matched his energy and enthusiasm and heart and mirrored back the warm embrace he’s given his adopted city.
Truthfully, he also wanted it for himself. Julio doesn’t like to lose, and he was already 0-1 on the night, having been subbed into the game to face one of its best closers in Camilo Doval. Last time they faced off, just over a week ago, Julio won: Doval tried to get Julio chasing a slider but missed his location, and Julio hit a two-RBI double that would help boost the Mariners to a 6-5 win over the Giants. This time, Doval attacked Julio at the top of the zone with triple-digits, power on power, and this time, Julio lost: Doval got him chasing what Statcast labeled a 101.5 mph cutter at the top of the zone.
Julio would get one more at-bat, in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line. Craig Kimbrel, obviously pitching to the scouting report, started off by trying to bust Julio inside with a 94 mph fastball. That’s where pitchers have been attacking Julio this year, when they’re not attacking him low and away, like the slider Doval was trying to sneak past Julio a week ago. It’s a more dangerous proposition: miss too far inside, and you hit him or throw an obvious waste pitch; but miss too much over the plate and risk winding up the background player in a highlight video. But it’s also a pitch Julio will chase more often, and while he’s strong enough to maybe fight off a parachute single, it’s unlikely he’ll do serious damage to a pitch that far in, and more likely he’ll pop out harmlessly or put the ball on the ground, giving your defense a chance to make a play or two.
But Julio didn’t chase. 1-0. Kimbrel came back with a curveball, well-placed at the bottom of the zone that did get Julio to chase to even the count, and then fooled the young hitter with a fastball right in the middle of the plate. No, like, right in the middle of the plate.
Maybe that was the pitch that could have made magic on a perfect summer night at T-Mobile Park; we’ll never know. Julio didn’t swing.
Julio has swung a lot this year. He and teammate Ty France are back-to-back on the Savant leaderboard, 21st and 22nd respectively, for swings out of the zone. He has the 30th highest out-of-zone swing-and-miss in baseball, which is a problem because he’s also seeing over half of his pitches out of the zone (56th in all of baseball).
It’s part of the reason the Mariners offense has struggled so mightily this season, and part of the thing they’re starting to turn around as a team. From the beginning of the season to June 25 (the end of the Baltimore series), Julio was swinging outside of the zone 40.6% of the time, and swinging 53.1% of the time. But since June 26, Julio has cut that outside-the-zone swing way down to 28.4%, and as a result is also swinging less, 49.5% of the time.
Of course not swinging isn’t a guarantee to a good outcome, and this time it resulted in Julio watching a hittable pitch sail by. Maybe he was guessing, and guessed wrong. Maybe he didn’t want to expend a precious swing in a 1-1 count when Kimbrel had walked the batter before him. Whatever the reason, Julio now was behind, 1-2, with Kimbrel and his curveball prepared to polish him off.
Instead of the curveball, Kimbrel tried to wrong-foot Julio again by going back to the fastball, but missed well outside, and Julio laid off. 2-2. Back to the curveball, and this time Julio laid off a less-well-located one, declining to chase, and suddenly it was 3-2 and Kimbrel had to get back on the plate or risk walking his second batter of the inning.
He threw a well-placed fastball Julio fouled off. Another do-or-die pitch. Would Kimbrel go for the fastball again or back to the curveball that got him his lone swinging strike in this at-bat?
Kimbrel opted for the same fastball he’d literally just walked Kyle Tucker on. It makes sense: Tucker, a lefty, will chase low-and-in, and Julio, a righty, will chase low-and-away. Here was Tucker’s at-bat:
And here’s Julio’s:
But Julio didn’t let the moment get too big for him. As beautiful as it would have been, he didn’t try to play the hero by trying to put out a four-alarm blaze with a seltzer bottle. He saw what Kimbrel offered, and knew it wasn’t what he needed.
“Given the situation that I had to pass the baton,” Julio said postgame. “My thought was just get a good pitch to drive and let’s try to win this game.
But I had to pass the baton.”
Learning to pass the baton has been a tough journey for Seattle’s young franchise player this season. He knows who he is and what he means to this city, this franchise, and he’s wanted to sprint forward with that baton himself. He’s also watched his teammates struggle to make things happen at the plate, to fail to pick up that baton when it is passed.
But tonight, in front of a packed house with the national spotlights shining, Julio watched ball four sail by and calmly took off his ankle guard and walked to first base.
Well, as calmly as Julio does anything on a baseball field.
José Ramirez did not pick up the baton. He chased a curveball and got spotted up by two excellently-placed fastballs by Kimbrel for a game-ending strikeout. The NL won, and Elías Díaz, and Rockies fans, got to enjoy a much-needed moment of their own.
It wasn’t the ending Seattle fans wanted. But in the bigger context, it was the outcome they needed. Julio just got a high-pressure, high-leverage at-bat among the game’s best players—and it didn’t matter. It was free experience. Furthermore, he made something good out of it, even if it wasn’t the thunderous result many hoped for.
Life doesn’t always give you what you want, but it will often give you what you need, if you’re able to recognize what that is. All-Star Week is great. Playoffs are better.