It’s been a slow but somewhat steady climb out of slumpsville for Dustin Ackley. The Mariners’ talented second baseman and projected franchise cornerstone struggled badly to start this season.
In his first 14 games, he was hitting .106 (5-for-47) with six strikeouts and no extra base hits.
He wasn’t hitting. He wasn’t making hard contact. The changes he had made in the offseason left his timing off and his swing lagging. Talk of a possible demotion to Triple-A Tacoma seemed plausible.
But Ackley scrapped some of the swing changes, went back to his old pre-swing technique and gradually began to hit. It wasn’t a tidal wave of success at first but things began to build.
First, he got his timing back. Next, he started hitting the ball harder. Actual base hits followed, and now it appears some extra base hits are next.
On Saturday, Ackley delivered his biggest hit of the season, crushing the first grand slam of his career off Toronto starter and reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey to propel the Mariners to an 8-1 win over the Blue Jays.
“That hit was the separator for us,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
Ackley looked a little confused against Dickey in the second inning, his first at-bat. He struck out looking without taking a swing. He vowed to not let that happen in his next at-bat, in the fourth.
He stepped to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. The night before he came up with bases loaded and delivered an RBI single. He got a little more this time, blasting a 3-2 knuckleball over the wall in right-center.
“It was a good pitch to hit,” Ackley said. “It wasn’t one of his best knuckleballs, I don’t think. He’s really tough. You can’t really figure out what that knuckleball is going to do. Fortunately for me, that one didn’t do much.”
“I was just trying to barrel it up. I told myself to let it get deep and put a good swing on it. I was in disbelief at first that I hit it as well as I did.”
Over his past 16 games, Ackley is hitting .362 (21-for-58) with three doubles and the homer. His season average is up to .255, and he’s hoping more extra base hits will follow.
“I think that’s something I can hopefully continue to improve on to hit the balls into the gaps,” he said. “Singles are great, but doubles and home runs are even better. Hopefully, I can get the loft on the ball you want to see like with (Michael) Saunders on those home runs.”
Mariners manager Eric Wedge, who stuck with Ackley during the struggles, thinks it will get better.
“It’s a boost,” Wedge said. “It also continues to push him in the right direction. You’ve seen him stay pretty consistent for a period of time. You know it’s in there. You’ve seen him drive the ball. For him to stay through and hit to right-center field, you have to do a lot of things to hit a ball like that.”
For Mariners fans eagerly awaiting the return of center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and hard-throwing reliever Stephen Pryor, they’ll have to keep waiting. Neither player seems to be close to rejoining the Mariners in the near future, according to Wedge.
Gutierrez has yet to resume any baseball activities since suffering a strained hamstring on April 22 against the Astros.
“We are going to take a look at him when we get back for those three (home games against Oakland next weekend) and go from there,” Wedge said.
Pryor is recovering from a strained side muscle he suffered on April 14.
“Pryor is making good progress, but it’s still going to be a while,” Wedge said. “Being such a big guy and how he throws, it’s going to be a while.”
The Mariners wrap up their three-game series in Toronto with a 10:07 a.m. game Saturday. Left-hander Joe Saunders (2-3, 5.25 ERA) will start against former Mariners top draft pick – right-hander Brandon Morrow (0-2, 5.29). The game will be broadcast on Root Sports and 710-AM.