Now going through his second spring training in the outfield, Ackley is beginning to feel like a veteran
MESA, Ariz. — His job title may have changed. But Dustin Ackley keeps all of the tools of his trade handy just in case.
When Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon told Ackley the other day that the team might use him some at first base and asked if he’d be ready, Ackley had a quick response.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got my first base mitt in my bag,’ ’’ McClendon said.
Cubs 12, Mariners 10
at Sloan Park
Notable: This was one of those ugly spring-training games that serves as a reminder of how much work needs to be done before the season. The two teams combined for 22 runs on 28 hits, 11 walks and three errors. There could have been more than three errors considering the poor defense. Felix Hernandez struggled with his command and never made it out of the third inning. He gave up six runs on six hits in 22/3 innings. Kevin Correia was roughed up for five runs on three hits and two homers in two-thirds of an inning. The Mariners had some offense as well. Nelson Cruz belted his second homer of the spring. Brad Miller had a two-run double and sacrifice fly. Austin Wilson also had a three-run inside-the-park home run in the loss. Tyler Olson pitched two innings, allowing an unearned run, and pitched himself out of two minor jams.
Player of the game: There may be no bigger story in the Cactus League this spring than Kris Bryant. The Cubs’ super prospect has mashed pitching this spring, and it continued Saturday. Bryant crushed a two-run homer off Hernandez and then clubbed a three-run homer off Correia. He has a Cactus League-leading eight homers this spring.
Quotable: “He did a nice job. He never panicked. He continues to impress. He made quality pitches. He did a nice job.” — manager Lloyd McClendon on Tyler Olson
On Tap: The Mariners will host the Texas Rangers on Sunday at Peoria Stadium. James Paxton will pitch in his first Cactus League game of the spring after being delayed by a bruised wrist. Texas will send right-hander Yovani Gallardo to the mound. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. The game will be televised on Root Sports and MLB.tv and broadcast on ESPN 710 and mariners.com
Ackley’s primary position, though, is left field, the spot he played regularly last year after making the transition from second base to outfield early in the 2013 season.
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Now going through his second spring training in the outfield, Ackley is beginning to feel like a veteran.
A year ago during the spring, he recalls, soreness in his shoulder was a constant companion. Now, he says, it’s only an occasional visitor, his arm growing accustomed to the different kinds of throws required of an outfielder.
“Last year it took me into the season for a while to get me to where I was feeling right,’’ he said. “I feel like I’m better equipped now for this kind of throwing than I was last year.’’
He feels similarly improved at just about every facet of playing out there.
“For sure,’’ he says. “As little games as I had played before, I was just out there just doing the best I could. … The more you see hitters and the more you know what guys do, the better you are positioned for them. It’s stuff like that you can’t really simulate here in spring training.’’
Ackley says he can tell more clearly from the sound of the crack of the bat where the ball might go. His previous outfielding experience before pro baseball had come primarily in games played with metal bats.
“Just getting the read of the sound of the bat is really key because a lot of times you don’t have anything else other than that to go off as far as how the balls are hit,’’ he said. “So it was a big adjustment because there wasn’t a lot of time that I spent in left field to get accustomed to that. It’s been a long road as far as just learning everything in that aspect.’’
Proof there is still learning to be done, though, came Thursday night. On a popup in no-man’s land down the third-base line, Ackley hesitated before calling off shortstop Brad Miller at the last minute, then was forced to dive to make the catch.
On such plays, the outfielder has to make the call, with the infielder assuming the ball is his until he hears otherwise.
“He just seems to have a little trouble with that ball coming in and the shortstop going out,’’ McClendon said. “One thing that we have impressed upon him is that’s his ball — he’s got to take charge. The shortstop is going to come until he hears him. So he’s working on it.’’
Ackley says it’s another subtlety of the position that simply takes time.
“An outfielder has to really know when to go after it and when not to,’’ he said. “So it’s a tough thing. You’ve got to rely on each other a lot even though there might not be a lot of communication going on. So that was just another thing to learn.’’
What’s come more quickly this spring is Ackley’s hitting stroke. Ackley has a .455 average, best on the team of anyone with double-digit at-bats, appearing to pick up where he left off last season when he .274 with 10 home runs over his final 69 games.
That was the best-prolonged stretch of his career and elicited hope that he may live up to the hype that accompanied his selection with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft.
The addition of Rickie Weeks, though, means the Mariners are expected to open the season with a platoon in left field — with the lefty-hitting Ackley starting against right-handers.
McClendon’s hint that Ackley could be used some at first — he had five starts there in 2012 and six in 2013 — would allow the Mariners to get him in the lineup more.
Most of the time, though, Ackley will be asked to pull the outfielder’s glove out of the bag.
“I’m one of those guys, you can find the good in pretty much anything as far as a position,’’ he said. “I’ve learned to really like it and enjoy it a lot.’’
Felix fine with rough outing
The numbers aren’t pleasing at first glance.
Felix Hernandez’s line for his Saturday start against the Chicago Cubs — 2 2/3 innings pitched giving up six runs on six hits with a walk, two strikes and two home runs allowed.
But Hernandez wasn’t overly upset. He doesn’t like to get hit around, but he also knows the results are meaningless.
“It was definitely not the result that I want, but I just got my work and threw a lot of pitches,” he said. “That’s what I’m here for.”
Hernandez didn’t have command with his secondary pitches, something not uncommon during the spring. His slider didn’t have its bite and his best pitch — the changeup— was ordinary.
“It was up and flat and wasn’t doing anything,” he said.
He left a flat changeup up in the strike zone to Cubs’ slugging prospect Kris Bryant, who flattened the baseball with one nasty swing, sending a two-run homer onto the left-field berm in the first inning.
“Big power, huh?” Hernandez said. “Nice. He looked good at the plate. He don’t swing at bad pitches. But it’s spring training.”
Hernandez had appeared to strike out Bryant on a 1-2 fastball on the inside corner that home-plate umpire Brian Gorman didn’t call a strike, to the disbelief of the Mariners.
Asked if it was a strike, Hernandez just shook his head in disgust and said, “I’m not talking about that.”
In the third inning, Hernandez gave up a two-run homer to prospect Addison Russell on a hanging slider, and was lifted from the game after 65 pitches.
Hernandez should have been out of the inning before Russell stepped to the plate, but Brad Miller’s throw on an inning-ending double play pulled first baseman Logan Morrison well off the bag. Hernandez threw 15 more pitches in the bullpen to get his total to 80 for the day.
Is the outing going to eat at him?
“No chance,” he said. “I’m just going to go out there and do my work for the next one.”
• Kyle Seager was a late scratch after feeling “a little tightness” in his side/oblique area.
“He was fine,” McClendon said. “He passed all the tests. It’s just too late in the spring to take any chances.”
• Spring training minor-league games began on Saturday for teams around the Cactus League.