As he spoke with a sizeable group of media before the game, Dustin Ackley’s hands trembled slightly.
Just hours from making his major league debut, the Mariners’ top prospect was enduring what turned out to be the toughest part of his day.
It was tougher than facing All-Star right-hander Roy Oswalt.
It was more difficult than fielding a hard ground ball off the bat of massive slugger Ryan Howard.
Simply sitting and talking about himself on the biggest day of his competitive life made him the most uncomfortable.
As he talked, he rubbed his hands back and forth several times to quell his nerves.
“I’m starting to visualize it now as we get closer,” Ackley said. “It’s going to be exciting when you’re walking up to the box in front of the crowd and (Roy) Oswalt is on the mound.”
He wouldn’t say he was nervous. He didn’t need to.
“Once the game gets going and gets into the swing of things, it will calm me down a little bit,” Ackley said.
And it did.
He coolly stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the second inning with 34,345 fans in attendance – many of them standing, all of them applauding.
He did a good job of hiding any jitters.
“Just getting in there was kind of nerve wracking,” Ackley said. “I wanted to swing at the first pitch but he got in the windup and I was kind of mesmerized and the bat just didn’t come off my shoulder.”
But that sweet left-handed swing sliced through an 0-2 change-up, sending a hard ground ball between the legs of Oswalt and into center field for a clean base hit in his first big league at-bat.
It drew a thunderous reaction from the Safeco fans, who have waited anxiously for his call up.
“To get that hit later in that at-bat, that was a great feeling to see the ball go up the middle and get that first hit,” he said.
Ackley became the first member of the Mariners to get a hit in his first big league plate appearance since Wladimir Balentien did it on Sept. 4, 2007, in New York against the Yankees.
He finished 1-for-4 for the game.
And while the hit excited fans, Ackley’s fielding was probably more satisfying for the coaching staff. He didn’t just look competent at second base, he looked comfortable.
In the eighth inning, he looked like an All-Star.
With a runner on first, Jimmy Rollins hit a hard ground ball to third. Chone Figgins fielded it cleanly and threw it to Ackley at second. With Carlos Ruiz rumbling toward him, Ackley caught the ball made a quick turn and a hard throw to first, while leaping over the sliding Ruiz for a 5-4-3 double play.
“It was pretty tough,” he said. “Figgy gave me a ball to handle and I was able to get it off. I knew the runner was going to be on me pretty quick and my whole goal was just to catch it and get it over there.”
It certainly pleased his manager.
“That was a hell of a turn in that eighth inning,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “Figgy did a good job of getting rid of it and getting it to him with something on it and Dustin did a good job of hanging in there and getting rid of it with something on it to first base there. That was a big play for us.”
Shortstop Brendan Ryan had a better description: “Play of the game.”
It would prove to be a huge play since Aaron Laffey gave up a solo home run in the following at-bat to Shane Victorino.
Playing the game was likely the most routine part of Ackley’s day. With his mom, dad, brother, sister and fiancée in town, he arrived at Safeco before 1 p.m. and barely had a peaceful moment thereafter.
He met with Wedge, who told him he would be playing almost every day.
“He told me, ‘If you go 4-for-4 or 0-for-4, you’re going to be in there,’ ” Ackley said. “Just don’t try to put too much on yourself. Just do what you know how to do and go from there.”
Wedge said there was nothing profound about his advice.
“Go out there and play the way you play,” Wedge said. “Don’t try to do any more. You’re one of 25. Everybody here has a job to do, and you’re no different.”
There is a concern Ackley might be viewed as some sort of offensive savior by Mariners fans.
Ackley understands there are expectations. He has his own .
“I expect what I expect every day – go out there and give it my best,” Ackley said. “You never know what’s going to happen. You might feel great and not get the hits. I’m just going to try to have good at-bats, whether that means hits or hard-hit balls or long at-bats, I’m going to take that for how it is.”
Teammate Justin Smoak thinks Ackley has nothing to worry about.
“He belongs up here,” Smoak said. “The guy rakes. There’s no doubt he can hit at this level. He’s ready to hit every pitch.”
Wedge said he wanted Ackley to soak in the first day and enjoy it, because it only happens once in a career.
“It’s a special day,” Wedge said. “If it ever gets to the point where it’s not special, you need to get out of the game. This is not just a job for these guys, this is the culmination of a dream come true and there’s only one first day.”