Dustin Ackley knows the story of how it all went down, of how he wound up with the Seattle Mariners and Stephen Strasburg wound up with the Washington Nationals – how the Mariners had the worst record in baseball, and thus ownership of the first overall pick of the 2009 draft, entering the final weekend of the season, only to sweep three games from the Nationals, who, as a result, reverse-leapfrogged the Mariners to the worst record and the first pick.
Ackley, who was picked second by the Mariners after the Nationals picked Strasburg, claims not to have sensed any regret – let alone animosity – from Mariners fans over the fact he isn’t Strasburg, just the occasional ribbing from teammates.
“I always hear, ‘Oh, man, we could’ve had him,’” Ackley said. “But it’s all in fun.”
While Strasburg works his way back from elbow surgery that so far has cost him the entire 2011 season, Ackley, a 23-year-old second baseman, is trying to show Mariners fans he was more than just a consolation prize. Called up to the big leagues a week ago after 200 minor league games, he now finds himself playing every day — and, at least on Thursday, batting second — in the middle of a pennant race.
At 37-37 entering Thursday, the Mariners were just two games behind Texas in the AL West, and haven’t been more than three games back since mid-May. Ackley joins first baseman Justin Smoak (acquired in last year’s Cliff Lee trade) and pitchers Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda as the 25-and-under core (yes, King Felix is still only 25) of the franchise.
Ackley put up solid enough numbers in the minors (.280/.387/.435), but his learning curve was lengthened by having to learn a new position. He had been primarily an outfielder at North Carolina, and mostly first base his junior year after having elbow surgery. After some internal debate, the Mariners settled on making him a second baseman — figuring he might not have the power to play first base in the AL, and might not have the arm for the outfield. Ackley said it took him until the first part of this season to begin feeling completely comfortable at his new position.
“I felt good there last year,” he said, “but didn’t feel like I had figured out every aspect of second base. Now I feel like, no matter what play happens, I’m ready for it.”
Once the Mariners called Ackley up, Manager Eric Wedge made the typical proclamations about not wanting to put too much on his plate too soon, and thus Ackley batted seventh in his major league debut on June 17. But he slowly crept up the batting order, rising to sixth, then fifth. And on Thursday, he arrived at the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park to find himself batting second. It’s the spot in the order where Ackley’s skills are most at home, but it’s a big spot for a rookie.
“It’s good to know [Wedge] has confidence in me in that spot,” Ackley said.
Shortstop Brendan Ryan, Seattle’s usual No. 2 hitter, got a day off Thursday, but Ryan has been an offensive disappointment this year (.250/.310/.309), and Wedge implied Ackley’s move up in the order was more than a one-day phenomenon.
“You can’t run away from Ackley,” Wedge said Thursday. “You can’t ignore what you see. I’m not going to be stubborn and keep him down at the bottom [of the lineup] just because he’s a young kid, when he’s out there swinging the way he’s swinging.”