Julio Rodríguez, another rising star in Seattle

Seattle Mariners' Julio Rodriguez, left, reacts with third baseman coach Manny Acta after hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres on Monday, 4 July 2022, in San Diego.  (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Seattle Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez, left, reacts with third baseman coach Manny Acta after hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres on Monday, 4 July 2022, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

PA

At the end of each warm-up before starting an inning on defense in center field, Julio Rodríguez takes a break. He scans the crowd at T-Mobile Park and chooses a direction to send a souvenir ball into the stands.

“I would like to be able to give a nice memory to everyone who comes onto the pitch,” Rodríguez said. “But unfortunately it’s not like that.”

Do not worry. Rodríguez is doing his part to provide memories and highlights for Mariners fans, and makes the statement that there seems to be a rising star in the Pacific Northwest.

Welcome to the J-Rod Show.

When Rodríguez made the Mariners opening day roster, it was a sign that the future had come sooner than expected. And after a difficult first few weeks, Rodríguez, 21, is on the rise and proving that his arrival in the majors was just in time.

He has been the AL Rookie of the Month in consecutive months. He was the AL Player of the Week last week. He may be the midseason leader for AL Rookie of the Year. And he could find himself All-Star in a matter of weeks.

There’s no doubt that Rodríguez is having fun in the process. The bat flips and shuffles around the third after long home runs. The smiles after claiming another stolen base. Fans are clamoring for Rodríguez to throw a ball at them before the start of each inning.

“I have to play this way. … That’s how I learned to play. That’s how I fell in love with the game,” Rodríguez said. “I feel like it’s pretty important for me to just be able to enjoy what I’m doing. I’m doing this because I love doing it and it’s a pretty cool sport. Being able to play with joy, I think it’s pretty important to me.

It’s surprisingly reminiscent of another young star who once patrolled Seattle’s center field. And while it’s unfair to draw major comparisons between what Ken Griffey Jr. was and what Rodríguez could become, there are similarities worth noting.

In the first 81 games of his rookie season, Griffey hit .282 with .809 OPS, 13 home runs, 13 doubles and 43 RBIs.

Rodríguez played his 82nd game on Tuesday in Seattle’s 6-2 win at San Diego. His numbers at the end of the day: .277 batting average with .823 OPS, 15 homers, 16 doubles and 43 RBIs. Rodríguez didn’t hit his first home run until May 1 in Miami and has 15 in the last 62 games played.

Rodríguez is the only player in league history to have 15 or more homers, 15 or more doubles, and 20 or more stolen bases in the first 81 games of his career.

In addition to what Rodríguez does at home plate, he’s learning center ground on the fly. He was primarily a corner fielder in the minors.

“He plays the tough game. Play the game the right way,” Seattle outfielder Jesse Winker said. “The young child does so many things well. Awesome awesome.

It’s not supposed to be as easy as Rodríguez seems to be doing his rookie season look. He was the AL Rookie of the Month for May and June. Last week he hit .360 with three home runs and a 1.273 OPS in seven games to be named AL Player of the Week.

As his numbers grew, so did the buzz with Houston’s Jeremy Pena and Kansas City’s Bobby Witt Jr. as favorites for AL Rookie of the Year midway through the season. But Rodríguez’s numbers are so good that his case for making the AL All-Star team has gone from strength to strength.

If Rodríguez ends up in Los Angeles, he will join a highly selective company. Since the start of the expansion era in 1961, only 14 players under the age of 22 have been named All-Stars in their rookie seasons. Among the names on this list: Albert Pujols, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Tim Raines, Johnny Bench and Rod Carew.

Does it belong in the game?

“I don’t know. I just feel like I belong here and I’m doing the best I can with my opportunities,” Rodríguez said. “It will happen on its own.”

The season didn’t start that way for Rodríguez. His first few weeks were tests of patience and questions about whether he was really ready to be in the majors. He was plagued by called third strikes that appeared outside the strike zone and created frustration with calls that didn’t go his way.

But Rodríguez remained steadfast in his approach. He didn’t change and started chasing pitches that weren’t strikes. He showed maturity rarely associated with 21-year-olds. His batting average dropped to .136 on April 21, just 12 games away from his debut. In the 70 games since, Rodríguez is hitting .301.

“It was tough for him at first,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “And I learned a lot about his commitment to his plan, his process, whatever you want to call it. He didn’t hesitate. And it’s really unique for players not to waver. I don’t care about their experience in this league.

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Naomi C. Amerson