Drayer: Next for Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez — fulfill childhood dream in WBC

Mar 6, 2023, 12:17 AM | Updated: 2:23 pm
Mariners Padres Julio Rodríguez Juan Soto...
The Mariners' Julio Rodriguez and Padres' Juan Soto will be teammates for the Dominican Republic in the WBC. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty)

Julio Rodríguez took nothing for granted when it came to the possibility of a spot on the Dominican Republic’s World Baseball Classic team.

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“I don’t know, man,” he remembered telling DR general manager Nelson Cruz last year when Cruz reached out and told him he thought he would like to see him on the team.

“I didn’t know that he was going to be the GM,” Rodríguez said of the former Mariners slugger. “I was like, ‘I want to play but I don’t know if I would get invited or anything like that.’ And he said ‘I know I want you to play.'”

And so Rodríguez will leave Mariners spring training camp Monday and fly to Miami to join a lineup that will include Manny Machado, Juan Soto, Rafael Devers, Cruz and new Mariners teammate Teoscar Hernandez. With a revamped pitching staff that includes reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara, Astros World Series hero Cristian Javier and a bullpen that could be flat out nasty, Team DR has a chance to finally erase the memory of a disappointing fifth place finish in the 2017 WBC.

For all that has come the young superstar’s way in the past year – Rookie of the Year Award, an All-Star selection, video game and baseball card covers, to name a few – representing his country once again holds a special place.

“Oh, it would mean the world,” said Rodríguez, who helped the DR win a bronze medal in the 2021 Olympics. “I feel like since I was a kid I was always being a fan of the World Baseball Classic and I remember it was a dream of mine.”

One has to go back only 10 years to Rodríguez’s “kid days,” but the memories of watching the WBC in the DR are strong.

“The passion of the players we bring all together, like everything on the line for the country, I feel I always remember that,” he said. “I also remember this big, huge at-bat Erick Aybar had. He got called like a really, really bad strike (Ángel Hernández was behind the plate) and then he came through. I remember that like it was right now.”

That was 2013, when the DR made an absolute tear through the field and took the championship, winning all eight of its games. This year, the team’s hopes are high once again.

“I know the whole country’s gonna be like our back basically cheering us on and I know it’s gonna be a dream becoming a reality,” Rodríguez said.

A unique opportunity in the midst of meaningless spring training games for all the Mariners who are leaving camp, which in addition to Rodríguez and Hernández includes Diego Castillo (DR), Eugenio Suárez (Venezuela), Matt Brash (Canada), Matt Festa (Italy) and Harry Ford (Great Britain).

While Rodríguez himself says there is meaning to a game every time he takes the field and there are eyes on him – see wall crash last Monday – this is different.

“The fact that you play (the WBC) every four years and you gotta lay everything out, there is not going to be all, ‘We’re going to do it tomorrow, we’re going to do it next day or whatever.’ It’s like, ‘We’re going to do it now.’ So I feel like that little pressure, desperation – winning now, that’s the only thing that matters. I feel like that’s something that really helps players out, makes them rise to the next level.”

Rodríguez himself has had that experience – not in the WBC but the Olympics when the Mariners allowed him to leave the organization to represent his country while he was working his way through the minor leagues. It was not a move you see often, letting your top prospect out of your watch, and in this case out of the country multiple times during the season. But Rodríguez wanted to do it and Jerry Dipoto saw the value in getting him the experience of facing that extra level of competition he wasn’t going to get in the minors. Rodríguez found himself looking back to the experience in Japan as he prepared for the postseason last year.

“Oh, for sure. For sure,” he answered when asked if he felt the benefit of that experience. “When I was in the Olympics, there were a lot of things that I got from there like having that thought in my mind and knowing we got to do it right now. It’s definitely pushed me to be better and to be even more committed to what we were doing over there.”

Rodríguez and his teammates will be missed in camp, but shy of the obvious risk (injury), this should be a great opportunity to get something they will not get in the spring on a field in Peoria.

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