CHICAGO — In the late hours of Wednesday evening, following the Mariners’ loss in miserable weather where he didn’t play, Jarred Kelenic stood in the lobby of Guaranteed Rate Field quietly talking to his uncle and cousin and a family friend.
In the midst of conversation, he paused to a baseball writer walking past, “Hey, I’m gonna get a couple of knocks tomorrow. I’m serious. You wait and see.”
“I believe you,” was the response.
Kelenic’s statement sounded confident, but not arrogant. But it also felt like he was telling it to himself.
The start of the 2022 season had yet to go as planned for the young outfielder. He had just one hit — an infield pop fly — in his first 17 plate appearances that also included nine strikeouts and two walks. He was fouling off pitches he should hit and watching pitches that he knew to be balls get called strikes. Not exactly confidence builders.
Before Thursday’s game, he doubled down on the comments from the night before when asked about them.
“I’m getting at least two hits,” he said. “Not being greedy.”
Asked if he was predicting a homer as well, he said, “No, just hard hits up the middle. I’m thinking too much. Sometimes you just have to simplify it to competing, you vs. the pitcher.”
Kelenic made good on his promise, picking up a pair of hits in the Mariners’ 5-1 victory to close out the season-opening road trip.
“See, I told you,” he said quietly in the clubhouse before answering questions.
In the second inning, he gave a tantalizing hint of his potential, turning a 93 mph fastball from White Sox starter Jimmy Lambert into screaming line drive off the foul pole in right field for a two-run homer.
Per MLB Statcast, his first homer of the season had an exit velocity of 114 mph. In the Statcast era that started in 2015, only four other Mariners players have hit homers with a 114 mph exit velocity: Nelson Cruz, who did it 10 times, Mike Zunino, Mark Trumbo and José Marmolejos. Kelenic’s homer was also the fourth-hardest hit homer in MLB this season. Behind two from Vlad Guerrero Jr. (117.9 mph and 116.3 mph) and one from Giancarlo Stanton (114.4).
Kelenic’s second hit came in his final at-bat when he hit a line drive that was pushed into left-center and bounced in front of left fielder Andrew Vaughn. He later stole second base.
“See what happens when you don’t think, Jarred,” Ty France teased him in the clubhouse.
To modify a line from the baseball genius that is the movie “Bull Durham” — “Don’t think, just hit.”
So while plenty of Mariners fans were already starting to worry and grumble about a possible repeat of the struggles in his MLB debut last season, Kelenic found solace in simplicity.
“Last night, I was laying in my hotel room, and I was looking at old videos from when I was in high school,” he said. “And all I could think about was, that I didn’t think about anything. I just got in the box. I was born to compete in anything. Today, my goal was to get in the box, compete against the pitcher, whoever it was gonna be, and it was a good day.”
Kelenic has admittedly allowed himself to get too caught up in all the information and scouting reports for pitchers. There is just so much data. Add all of that to a burning intensity to succeed and contribute to go with a high level of irritation and frustration when he doesn’t, and it can overwhelm his approach.
“Absolutely, especially if you’ve got a guy that’s got a wipeout slider or a nasty changeup, or whatever the case may be,” he said. “You can kind of psych yourself into thinking, ‘OK, don’t swing at it, don’t swing at it’ and then you chase it. So it’s just trying to simplify games. At the end of the day, it’s the same game that you’ve been playing since you were little. You really have to focus on making the game simple.”
When told that neither of his hits were up the middle though, he smiled and replied, “The second one was sort of the up middle. It started that way.”
Manager Scott Servais has been complimentary of Kelenic’s poise from the start of spring training. A year ago, this sort of stretch turned him into a bat-breaking, helmet-shattering, umpire-baiting terror. While he hasn’t lost that burning intensity, there is a calm and an understanding that didn’t exist until he found success late last season.
“His at-bats today were much better,” Servais said. “I thought just the ease in which he was going about taking pitches. He was tense-free today. And then when he does that, good things are going to happen for him. With Jarred, he’s a grinder. We all know that. But sometimes you just gotta turn it all off and just go compete, slow it down and compete, and that’s what he did today.”