At long last, Dustin Ackley has arrived. On Friday night at Safeco Field, Ackley made his major league debut in front of an adoring crowd with the buzz of high expectations in the air. There hasn't been a Seattle Mariners prospect with the kind of buzz Ackley has garnered for years, and for good reason.
As the No. 2 pick in the 2009 MLB Draft, Ackley was tabbed as the best hitter in the class, and nearly major league ready. Just two years later, Ackley is here, in Seattle, and ready to contribute on a daily basis.
There's no easing Ackley into the major leagues with the Mariers. Manager Eric Wedge made it clear the young second baseman is ready and will be the starter right off the bat. His welcome to the big leagues moment comes against the Phillies, the best rotation in baseball.
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We got a good look at why Ackley has been building a buzz that's been building a crescendo this year as the Mariners battled the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday night. His approach at the plate is exactly what the Mariners need: He's patient, knows the strike zone and can spray the ball around. His bat control is already superb and his eye at the plate is already better than most of the Mariners lineup.
In his first at bat, he made an immediate splash. After falling into an 0-2 hole -- the second pitch was not a strike, Ackley knew it and gave the umpire a "what?" look -- he fought off a tough changeup on the outer-half, driving it back up the middle for the first base-hit of his career.
Though he finished 1-4 on the night, just looking at the box score doesn't tell the story. Ackley turned on a pitch and stung it down the right field line, but Ryan Howard was in the right spot to make a tough play for the out. He also took a pitch the other way, lining the ball towards the gap in left-center, though Shane Victorino was able to come over and make the grab. Four at-bats, three well-hit balls. There's not much more you could ask for in his major league debut.
But we already knew Ackley could hit. It's why the Mariners drafted him and why expectations were so high. We didn't know how his defense at second base would hold up. The transition to second base has been a process filled with pitfalls, and part of the reason the Mariners kept him in Tacoma for so long this season (the only reason may have been his Super Two status).
Against the Phillies, he looked like a natural, making all the routine players you'd expect him to with little effort and turning one tough double play. Ackley turned a difficult 5-4-3 around the horn double play, standing in with a runner bearing down on him as if he'd done it a million times. And the double play may have been the most important play of the game -- the next batter went deep, and the double-play saved an extra run.
It was just one game, but we saw Dustin Ackley in a nutshell on Friday night. He probably won't hit home runs or post a high slugging percentage, but he will get on base and he has the ability to recognize pitches to hit and give them a ride. There will be growing pains, but it's all part of the fun of watching a young prospect mature.
Ichiro isn't dead, and would like you to stop writing about his demise
Maybe all Ichiro needed was a day off. With columnists and the media wondering if this was the end of Ichiro, he sat last Friday. In the six games following his day of rest, Ichiro has recorded six multi-hit games. He's hitting the ball well, getting on-base and playing like the Ichiro of old in the outfield. After 250-plus consecutive games played, maybe the 37-year-old just needed a day off.
This team is better with Ichiro on it and better when he's hitting well. Yes, he's been in a funk, but lets hold off on the eulogies. He's not dead yet and can still contribute at a high level.
Ichiro also made Eric Wedge look like a damn genius with his sudden hit-streak following the day off. At this point, Wedge seems to be pressing all the right buttons. And while Ichiro's benching was an easy button to press, somewhere Wedge is stroking his mustache, contemplating his next move. Watch out, Chone Figgins.
The Seattle Mariners are fun again
Coming into the 2011 season, I expected doom and gloom; 162 games of suck with 100-some losses. I dreaded it -- losing does that to a fan, and the disappointment of 2010 still weighed heavily on the minds of many. That season, and that team, was expected to be the one. The Mariners were supposed to make a run to the playoffs with Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee. Everything had aligned perfectly in the offseason.
It all went wrong in a hurry, and Seattle struggled through another season of failure. Losing 100 games when you're expecting to be in the divisional race takes a toll. It lowers expectations, breaks fans and makes it tough to keep coming back for the grind that is a major league season.
But maybe that's why this year has been so much fun. The Mariners started off dreadfully, and the season took a turn towards "here we go again" in a hurry. But something funny happened: The pitching clicked, the hitting started to turn around and the Mariners began piling up wins in bunches. The unexpected nature of the 2011 season has made it a joy to watch. With no expectations, the Mariners didn't have to do much to pleasantly surprise the fans, and they've done much more than that.
The pitching is alive and the rotation is one of the best in baseball. Hernandez and Michael Pineda form a one-two punch that rivals the best in the league. Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley are growing in front of our eyes and are both the future and the present. Miguel Olivo has found power at Safeco Field while becoming a fan-favorite -- neither of which were expected. Brendan Ryan is a goofball, and a goofball who's hitting well. And Eric Wedge can do no wrong.
The Mariners are fun again and slowly gaining the trust of the fans back. While attendance at Safeco Field has been dismal for much of the season, it's time to head to the ballpark and watch a ballgame. Summer is here, the Mariners are a half game out of first place and the team is taking the city for a ride. We don't know whether it will last, but we're watching the core of the future grow, learn on the job and lift the team into contention.
It's a hell of a ride, so hop aboard.
Mariners items you may have missed
We love Brendan Ryan, and maybe it's because he is the most baseball player ever.
The Mariners joined the It Gets Better campaign and will produce a video.
Ichiro made an appearance on Grantland this week.
Dustin Ackley is here, but before he made it to Seattle ESPN put him on the front page.
Kenji Johjima: Still not a Mariner.
For more on the Mariners, head over to Lookout Landing, where Jeff Sullivan and Matthew will entertain you with some of the best writing and analysis around.