As the Seattle Mariners approach the homestretch of an unsatisfying season, it appears they may have an answer to a longtime quandary that contributed to their 2015 struggles.
They’ve identified a leadoff man capable of generating top-of-the-order electricity.
Until three weeks ago, the role had been divvied between Austin Jackson, Dustin Ackley, James Jones, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Justin Ruggiano, Seth Smith, Chris Taylor and Rickie Weeks. None had the combination of speed and bat-contact dexterity the job requires.
Enter rookie Ketel Marte, whose leadoff single in the bottom of the first inning Wednesday enabled the Mariners to bat around for the first time in 2015, scoring four runs in an 8-2 victory over the Oakland A’s.
Ace starter Felix Hernandez pitched brilliantly over eight innings, improving his record to 15-8 after throwing consecutive clunkers.
But it was Marte who set the tone for Hernandez’s bounce-back effort. Trailing 1-0 after a first-pitch home run to Billy Burns, Marte lined a single down the left-field line. One out later, he scored on Nelson Cruz’ single to center.
The Mariners were off and running.
“Look for a good pitch, make a good swing, get on base, and see what happens,” Marte said of an approach that has made the daily chore of filling out a lineup card easier for manager Lloyd McClendon.
“That’s what your leadoff hitter does,” McClendon said. “He creates havoc. He gets on and he steals bases.”
Marte, McClendon continued, “has shown an ability — in a short period of time — that he’s capable of being a solid leadoff guy. I’m not ready to anoint him; we need to take our time. He’ll have his struggles and he’s make mistakes, like all young players do. But I think he’ll be a player we’re all gonna be proud of.”
Since his July 31 promotion from the Rainiers, Marte has settled into a comfort zone after a brief, inevitable struggle to adjust from the Pacific Coast League, which the 21-year old pretty much dominated as an All-Star shortstop.
“My first week, I was a little scared,” he said. “Now I feel normal.”
With the game all but out of reach for the A’s, Marte lashed a sixth-inning double to left-center, scoring his second run on another Cruz RBI single. The extra-base hit was Marte’s ninth in his past 12 games — he went without an extra-base hit in his first 12 games — and extended his on-base streak to 13 games.
“It’s always important to get off to a good start,” McClendon said of Marte, who is hitting .333. “You never want a young player to go off to the big leagues, get buried, and lose confidence.
“His confidence is at an all-time (high) right now. This young player is used to playing against better competition in winter ball. I don’t think he’s overwhelmed.”
Thanks to Marte’s contribution as first-inning catalyst, a Safeco Field crowd of 23,338 watched the Mariners play what might have been their best game of the year. The offense collected 12 hits, including back-to-back homers off the bats of Kyle Seager and Cruz in the eighth inning.
Hernandez gave up three hits, striking out seven while walking one. He attributed the comeback performance to resolving delivery issues that had caused his pitches to approach the plate on a flat line.
McClendon was not concerned.
“This game is hard to play,” he said, “even for the great ones.”
The game will be hard to play for Ketel Marte, too. But it sure looked easy for him Wednesday.
THURSDAY: Seattle (LHP Roenis Elias: 4-6, 4.22 ERA) at Chicago White Sox (LHP Carlos Rodon: 5-5, 4.22), 5:10 p.m., Root Sports, 1030-AM, 710-AM