It had to be a home run.
You knew it wasn’t going to be an infield single or a blooper into shallow left-center — that would come later.
No, Jarred Kelenic’s first big-league hit had to match the hype surrounding his call-up and align with his self-assured personality.
After going hitless in his MLB debut Thursday night and striking out in his first at-bat Friday, the Mariners’ precocious prospect gave the fans at T-Mobile Park what they wanted to see in his second at-bat — a glimpse of that talent and power in the form of a laser into the outfield seats.
Facing Cleveland starter Aaron Civale, who came into the game with a 5-0 record and a 2.91 earned-run average in seven starts, Kelenic jumped on a low splitfinger fastball on the outside half of the plate. In a testament to his raw strength and compact swing, Kelenic dropped the barrel of the bat on the pitch, sending a line drive over the wall in deep right-center over the 380 sign and into the hands of a fan, who will likely trade the valuable memento to Kelenic for some autographed memorabilia.
But beyond the individual achievement, it provided an injection of energy into the slogfest that has been the Mariners offense for the better part of two weeks. And that homer, along with two other hits from Kelenic, including an RBI double, helped Seattle unleash an unexpected explosion of runs and snap a five-game losing streak in what would eventually be a 7-3 victory.
It was just the second time in 11 games where Seattle scored seven runs or more and the 10 hits were more than the total combined hits in the previous three games. Kelenic finished the night with three of those 10 hits — the two-run homer in the third, a two-out hustling double on a line drive to center and another hustling double on a blooper to left field that scored a run in a big four-run seventh inning.
“It’s been a rough, rough stretch for us the last four or five games and certainly what Kelenic provided tonight was huge,” manager Scott Servais said. “The quality of the at-bats that Jarred threw out there tonight got us going, certainly with the home run for the first hit and everything around that. It’s going to be fun to watch.”
While it seems unfair to view Kelenic as a savior to the offense at age 21 and in his second MLB game, it’s not impossible for him to have an effect on a team beyond the production.
“Sometimes one player can make a difference in just how guys go through their at-bats and with the emotion and excitement that he can bring on a daily basis,” Servais said. “Youthful enthusiasm is a very good thing.”
There is an intensity to the way he plays the game. He treats every at-bat like a war and refuses to give one away due to lack of focus or commitment.
“I’m a competitor and I want to win,” he said. “I want to bury our opponents, each and every night. It really bugs me when I give away at-bats or if I don’t execute on what I’m trying to do. I think especially at this level that’s what you notice in the difference between the minor leagues and the major leagues — guys just don’t give away at-bats that much, and pitchers don’t give away pitches that much. So the times that they do, you need to execute and be ready. You’ve got to be locked in each and every pitch.”
It’s a mindset that teammates noticed since he started being invited to MLB spring training the past few seasons.
“He’s just a good hitter,” said Mitch Haniger, who batted behind Kelenic. “The thing just struck me, dating back to spring training, the guy just has good at-bats, he controls the zone well, he’s got a good eye and that’s gonna play. If you swing at good pitches and you hit the ball hard, and he does plenty of that, he’s gonna be a good player. It’s been fun to watch. It’s great to have him in our lineup and we are looking forward to it for many more nights.”
After flirting with being no-hit the day before and several times before that, Kyle Seager ended that seemingly every-game drama in the first inning, launching a solo homer to deep right-center off Civale to make it 1-0.
When Kelenic came to bat in the third inning, he stepped into the box having seen all four of Civale’s pitches — cutter, fastball, curveball and splitfinger — in his first at-bat, which ended in irritating fashion with an awkward check-swing on a splitfinger in the dirt that was called a strike by third-base umpire Ted Barrett.
Kelenic didn’t take a half swing at the splitter again.
Off the bat, Kelenic seemed to know it was a hit hard, but wasn’t certain it was a homer. There was no bat flip or even pose. He ran hard out of the box and didn’t slow down much as he circled the bases. In the stands, his parents and girlfriend screamed, hugged and celebrated.
“I knew I put a good swing on it, and finally got a good pitch to hit,” he said.
As he crossed home plate, he pointed directly at his family before heading to the dugout. The fans in the stands gave him a standing ovation, screaming for a curtain call. Kelenic appeared from the dugout and stood on the top step next to Servais, waving his helmet to acknowledge their request.
“I never have,” he said of the curtain call. “I didn’t even know that that’s what they wanted, until people were like, ‘get out there!’ I didn’t know what was going on until I realized that everyone was standing up. You know that’s something I’ve always imagined. I’ve seen other guys do it. I remember when Bryce Harper hit two home runs on opening day and he got a curtain call. It was perfect.”
Kelenic loved Harper growing up and talked about watching his first MLB home run on his YouTube channel. In a bit of baseball coincidence, Harper’s first MLB homer came nine years to the day of Kelenic’s first homer.
“Wow, I didn’t know that,” Kelenic said. “It was against the Padres. I was watching that game. He did it at home. He hit a ball to center field. I didn’t know that. That’s pretty cool.”
How many times did he watch that Harper homer?
“Over and over and over,” he said.
More than a few Mariners fans will be doing the same with his homer.
When he jogged out to left field after the inning was over, the fans in Edgar’s Cantina and in the left-field bleachers and near the left-field foul line gave him a standing ovation.
The 3-0 lead was useful for starter Chris Flexen, who was effective despite not being overly difficult to hit.
He pitched 5 2/3 innings, allowing one run on five hits with a walk and no strikeouts. Of his 85 pitches, he generated just four swings and misses. Cleveland put 20 balls in play and 11 of them had exit velocities of more than 90 mph, including five over 100 mph.
With two outs in the top of the sixth and Seattle up 3-1, Servais went to his bullpen. Right-hander Kendall Graveman, who hadn’t pitched in a week, finished the sixth and worked a scoreless seventh.
But a four-run bottom of the seventh proved useful and necessary for victory.
Dylan Moore led off with a double, stole third and scored on a sac fly from Luis Torrens. Sam Haggerty followed with a double to right and scored easily on Kelenic’s double. Mitch Haniger punctuated the inning by crushing a fastball from Phil Maton into the mass of inhumanity known as The ‘Pen, which has now returned to full capacity, though those fans must be fully vaccinated.
Erik Swanson pitched a routine scoreless eighth inning. But the ninth inning wasn’t simple. Asked to finish what should’ve been a comfortable win with a six-run lead, right-hander J.T. Chargois made things interesting, serving up a two-run homer to Josh Naylor. Chargois appeared to have ended the game when Harold Ramirez hit a line drive to shortstop J.P. Crawford. But he dropped the knuckling liner. Crawford still had time to make a play, firing to first base. But Jose Marmolejos, playing in place of the injured Evan White, dropped the throw.
Servais brought in Rafael Montero to get the final out, which he did, getting a ground out to first, earning a one-out save.