All signs are pointing to Julio Rodriguez returning from the injured list Monday, just in time to play in the final few regular-season games before the Mariners’ first potential playoff series since 2001.
Even when Rodriguez returns to his usual spot in center field, Jarred Kelenic won’t be going far.
Kelenic, 23, has played well as the fill-in center fielder over the past week — so well that the Mariners fully intend to keep their former top prospect on the playoff roster.
Kelenic has hit three home runs in seven games since being recalled last week from Class AAA Tacoma — including two Thursday night — and his solid play defensively gives manager Scott Servais a viable option in left field.
“He’s playing free and easy and confident, and we need it,” Servais said late Thursday, after the Mariners’ 10-9 extra-innings victory over Texas. “He’s going to be a big part of our team as we go through this postseason push.”
The Mariners (85-70) would clinch a playoff berth with a victory over Oakland Friday night at T-Mobile Park (or with a Baltimore loss to the Yankees in New York, a game that starts at 4 p.m. PT).
It’s likely Kelenic would be used in the playoffs as the left-handed side of a left-field platoon, paired with Sam Haggerty or Dylan Moore. The Mariners aren’t planning to use Jesse Winker in left field for the rest of the season, and it’s unclear where he might fit — if at all — in the postseason lineup.
If the Mariners open the playoffs against, say, Toronto’s Alek Manoah or Cleveland’s Shane Bieber — two of the top right-handed starters in the American League — Kelenic would almost certainly get the start in left field for the Mariners’ first playoff game in 21 years.
Kelenic’s sudden revival is one of the most unexpected developments of the year for the Mariners.
“He’s got some kind of talent,” Servais said.
And it’s finally coming to life on the biggest stage.
“I’m not trying to think so much. Just play baseball,” Kelenic told The Times this week. “I’m in a great spot. My bat feels quick, and the ball’s just jumping off the bat once I touch it. That’s always a good thing. So I’m just trying to stay even-keel and play the game.”
After making his much-hyped debut as a 21-year-old in May 2021, Kelenic struggled to hit major-league pitching and has bounced back and forth between Seattle and Tacoma since. Demoted again Aug. 11, he went back to Tacoma and made some mechanical adjustments to his setup at the plate over the past six weeks, getting into a more athletic stance and limiting the lift on his high leg kick.
“He’s really taken a lot of the extra movements out of his swing,” Servais said. “We’ve often talked about the best hitters in our game, the consistent ones over time, their movements are very small, they’re very consistent. The guys with the big leg kicks and all this other stuff — sometimes those are the streakiest guys, because they have so much movement, so much timing involved, and they get out of whack a little bit.
“But I like where Jarred’s at right now. He’s done exactly what we hoped he could do with Julio going down. I don’t think he’s trying to do too much. I think that’s the key.”
In his first few stints with the Mariners, Kelenic was full of fury. It often looked like he was trying to hit home runs, trying to prove he was the can’t-miss star everyone billed him to be.
Teammates and coaches describe him now as calmer and more relaxed. It’s a small sample size, sure, but Kelenic’s production over the past week is an important affirmation of his improved approach.
In seven games since Sept. 22, he has eight hits in 27 at-bats, with three homers, three doubles, three walks and six strikeouts, posting a .296 batting average and a 1.107 OPS.
Kelenic’s first home run Thursday was an opposite-field shot into the Rangers bullpen in left field. The second came on a high fastball from a left-handed reliever that Kelenic pulled over the wall in right field.
“You don’t see left-handed hitters go out of this ballpark the other way too often. I mean, he smoked that ball,” Servais said. “And I was probably more excited with the home run off the lefty. He got a high fastball there and turned it around.”
Now, Kelenic says, he’s just trying to help the team win, and he’s happy to be back and part of the pennant chase.
“It means a lot,” he said. “Everybody here is just trying to contribute any way they can, whether that’s on the basepaths, at the plate, on defense. That’s our game. If we can all pitch in 1% each game, we’re going to be fine.”