Image credit: Julio Rodriguez (Tom DiPace)
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. —Julio Rodriguez starred all week for the Dominican Republic at the Americas Qualifier. Despite being one of the youngest players at the event, the 20-year-old Mariners prospect showed time and again he could rise to the occasion and stand out in a lineup full of decorated veterans.
With his team in need of its biggest hit of the tournament, and its Olympic hopes hanging in the balance, the No. 3 prospect in baseball delivered one final time.
Rodriguez hit the tiebreaking RBI single with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning to lift the Dominican Republic to a 6-5 win over Canada in its final game of the Americas Qualifier on Saturday afternoon. With the hit, the Dominican Republic is guaranteed to finish in at least third place and remains in play to qualify for the Olympics. The loss eliminated Canada from Olympics contention.
“He’s the best player in this tournament right now,” Dominican Republic manager Hector Borg said. “Write it down, that name, Julio Rodriguez. Because this kid, his talent is something crazy. This kid can play different.”
Rodriguez entered batting .429 (9-for-21) with two home runs, six RBIs and a 1.143 OPS in the qualifier. He earned the praise of veteran sluggers like Jose Bautista throughout the week, and the respect he’d earned was evident in the D.R.’s finale.
After Rodriguez had a hard-hit single in the third, Canada intentionally walked him in the fourth inning with two outs and the go-ahead run on first base to pitch to Bautista, the 15-year major league veteran with 344 career home runs. The gambit worked when, after Bautista walked, Juan Francisco grounded out to end the inning.
With the score tied 5-5 in the eighth, Canada chose another tact. With two on and two out, manager Ernie Whitt summoned Axford, Canada’s best reliever, to face Rodriguez. The 10-year major league veteran experienced a resurgence of velocity in the qualifier and showed the ability to ramp up to 95-96 mph in Canada’s exhibition games against the United States leading up to the event.
Rodriguez quickly got ahead in the count 2-0, fouled off a pair of elevated fastballs and watched another fastball sail low and away to work the count full.
With the game, and both the Dominican Republic’s and Canada’s Olympic hopes hanging in the balance, Rodriguez stepped into the box, eyed Axford and didn’t miss his pitch to hit.
Axford fired a 96-mph fastball intended for the outside corner that instead got a little too much of the plate, and Rodriguez drove it up the middle into center field. Gustavo Nuñez raced around from second base and scored without drawing a throw, sending the Dominicans streaming out of their dugout in celebration and the hearty, pro-Dominican crowd into delirium.
“You sure can say that this is the biggest hit of my career,” Rodriguez said. “That hit felt different. As I’ve been saying the whole time, representing my country, it’s just the most special place I have ever played in my life. And I will keep saying it, it’s just different baseball. When I got that base hit, it was just a different feeling. I’ve never experienced this before, and I’m so happy that I’m here right now. I’m so happy.”
The Dominican Republic will now await the result of the nightcap between Team USA and Venezuela. If Team USA wins, it clinches a berth to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo while Venezuela and the Dominican Republic will advance to the Final Qualifier in Mexico. If Venezuela wins, a series of tiebreakers will be used to determine which of the three teams will earn the Olympic berth and which two will go to Mexico to try and win the final spot in the Olympics.
Canada is eliminated from Olympics contention. It played its best hand with Axford, and Rodriguez simply won the battle.
“We knew he was one of the hottest hitters in the tournament coming into it, and he looked like he was just on every pitch that we threw to him,” Whitt said. “We tried to make a decision. He’s just a really good young player and he was hot right now during this tournament. So I mean, you’ve got to tip your hat to him.”
Rodriguez’s game-winner capped a tight back-and-forth affair between the two teams. Tigers prospect Daniel Pinero went 3-for-4 with two home runs for Canada, the first of which gave the Canadians a 3-0 lead in the first inning and the second pulled Canada into a 4-4 tie after the Dominicans had rallied to pull in front. Pinero gave Canada the lead one more time with an RBI single off reliever Jumbo Diaz in the eighth to make it 5-4, but the Dominicans came right back. Nuñez stroked a one-out single off reliever Scott Mathieson to score Charlie Valerio from second and tie the score at 5-5. Mathieson walked Melky Cabrera to bring up Rodriguez, and Whitt came out to the mound and summoned Axford.
Facing the longtime veteran, in the biggest moment of the game, Rodriguez gave the Dominicans the lead one final time.
“In my head, I was literally just ‘try to see the ball, try to quiet all the noise outside of me’ and just stay centered in what I wanted to do and just find a good pitch and just barrel it,” Rodriguez said. “Whatever result happens, it happens. Thank God I got a base hit I could deliver for the team. That was my mindset. Just try to stay centered, not thinking about anything. Just put the barrel on the ball.”
Jairo Asencio struck out the side in the top of the ninth to end it.
There were many standouts for the Dominicans. Raul Valdes tossed seven innings in his second solid start of the qualifier. Royals prospect Jeison Guzman and Mariners prospect Luis Liberato each went 2-for-4, Francisco hit a two-run single and Valerio homered in the fifth before scoring the tying run in the eighth.
But the game, and in reality the entire week for the Dominicans, hinged on Rodriguez. For Borg, it was just the latest example of Rodriguez showing how unique a talent he really is.
“He can hit, but not only hit, his approach is special for that age,” Borg said. “It’s just unbelievable the way that he plays the game and the way he controlled the scenario in that at-bat. I’m happy to see that Julio won that at-bat. He was the leader in that base hit to win the game.”