TORONTO — Finally, the Mariners have the outfield they envisioned all along.
It took only six months, two demotions, one extended stay on the injured list and a monster year from their rookie phenom for it all to come together.
But here they are, about to play the franchise’s first playoff game in 21 years with the starting outfield they had planned for coming out of spring training.
Jarred Kelenic is expected to start in left field for the Mariners in Game 1 of the American League Wild Card Series on Friday against Toronto’s right-handed ace, Alek Manoah, at the Rogers Centre.
Julio Rodriguez has been baseball’s biggest breakout star this season, and he will start in center field Friday afternoon.
Veteran Mitch Haniger, who missed half the season with a high ankle sprain, will make his playoff debut in his usual spot in right field. He’s healthy again and has swung a hot bat over the past week.
Kelenic’s emergence has been the biggest surprise of the final two weeks of the regular season, and the Mariners are convinced this breakthrough is real.
“I don’t know that we have a player who has the ability to change what happens with the team in front of him any more than Jarred, because of how gifted he is,” Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners’ president of baseball operations, said Thursday.
During his most recent stint down in Triple-A Tacoma, Kelenic, 23, said he had a quiet moment of reflection in the batting cage during a road trip in Las Vegas. Kelenic realized he needed to cut down on his swing and try to relax a little more at the plate.
“I’m not trying to think so much. Just play baseball,” Kelenic said last 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.”
Dipoto said the improved approach is obvious.
“I’m so proud for what he’s accomplished. And sometimes you have to get to that ‘ah-ha’ moment where it is oftentimes you’re just sitting in an empty room or in a cage by yourself when you cross that bridge,” Dipoto said. “He has pounded his head against the wall for a couple of years now trying to force his way over the bridge.
“It’s not easy to go from being a super prospect to a good major league player. He’s periodically shown us that. I think this version of Jarred — his pitch selection; what he’s doing with breaking balls; the way he’s identifying breaking balls; how much easier he’s approaching his swing; and just visually how he looks in the box — I think it’s affecting him in a good way.”
With Sam Haggerty (groin) and Jesse Winker (neck) landing on the injured list this week, Kelenic appears to be the obvious option in left field.
Kelenic does enter the postseason with only one hit in his past 23 at-bats, and he was hit by a pitch in the chest Tuesday. He’s been a little unlucky, Dipoto intimated.
But the batted-ball data suggests Kelenic is on the right track, and he’ll get his chances this postseason to continue to prove that.
“His raw results have not been close to how good his process has been,” Dipoto said. “… Now we see it coming together in a very different way than it had been before. He could go out and have a dynamic postseason and then use it as a springboard toward becoming the big-league player that he was always going to be. Or he could just continue to adhere to a good process and excite us just as much, because this guy just turned 23 years old. There’s so much baseball in front of him, and again I can’t express how proud I am of him.”