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Mariners hit jackpot with Dustin Ackley

by: COURTESY OF SEATTLE MARINERS Rookie Dustin Ackley already has helped the Mariners win games, says Seattle manager Eric Wedge, who predicts a good career for the M's new starting second baseman.

SEATTLE - For a player who says he modeled his game after Pete Rose, Dustin Ackley has some home-run pop to his bat.

The rookie second baseman exhibited it again Wednesday at Safeco Field with an eighth-inning two-run homer off Atlanta's Jonny Venters in Seattle's 5-3 loss to the Braves.

Two things about that:

• Venters is one of the nastiest relievers in baseball, with a 1.26 ERA entering the game and all kinds of movement on his pitches. It was the first round-tripper Venters has allowed in 46 appearances this season and the second in 125 major-league games.

'I got in a good count (3-1), was able to get a good pitch to hit, ended putting a good swing on it, and it barely got over the fence,' Ackley said him in his unassuming fashion.

• Venters is left-handed, and Ackley bats left-handed. It was the first extra-base hit Venters has allowed against a lefty hitter this season. Ackley is 6 for 8 against southpaws in his brief big-league career.

'Usually I see right-handers a lot better,' Ackley said, 'but lately for some reason I've felt really good off lefties and found some holes.'

Ackley hasn't wasted any time making Seattle look good for taking him with the second pick in the 2009 draft.

Since his call-up from Triple-A Tacoma on June 17, Ackley has hit .300 with two homers and played errorless ball in a dozen games. On Wednesday, he swatted the line-drive four-bagger to right, stole a base and made several nice defensive plays. Already, he is firmly entrenched as Seattle's starting second baseman.

'I've been happy with the way I've been playing,' said Ackley, 23. 'Hopefully, I will start to steal more bases soon. That's something I can add to my game and help the team score runs.'

Boy, do the Mariners need that. Their anemic offense ranks last in the American League in both batting (.227) and on-base percentage (.295), and any infusion of prowess at the plate is to be welcomed.

'He's doing great,' Seattle first baseman Justin Smoak said. 'Everybody knew he was a good hitter. He is always going to be a good hitter. He can just flat-out hit. It has been fun to watch. Everybody is excited for what he can do for this club.'

'Dustin is off to a great start,' first-year manager Eric Wedge said. 'He has been consistent in all areas and has fit in right away. The bat leads, but you have to be impressed with the way he has played defensively, run the bases and the way he has handled himself. He has helped us win games already.'

Ackley was on third base in the 10th inning Sunday with Florida reliever Steve Cishek beginning to intentionally walk Carlos Peguero. Cishek threw a wild pitch, and Ackley alertly scampered home for the decisive run in the Seattle's 2-1 victory.

'That was a first,' said Ackley, who singled, doubled and tripled in the game. 'You have to stay close to the bag because they're keeping you there. But after I saw him throw a couple of pitches, I was like, 'Man, he's throwing a couple wide.' "

Ackley, whose father, John, played in the Boston Red Sox farm system, seemed a can't-miss prospect after three banner years at North Carolina. He helped the Tar Heels to three straight College World Series appearances and set a record with 27 hits in 14 CWS games.

As an outfielder, Ackley was the national freshman of the year, leading the nation with 119 hits, scoring 74 runs in 73 games and hitting .402. North Carolina made it to the final round of the CWS, losing 11-4 and 9-3 to Oregon State. Ackley homered in the final game.

The Beavers 'had a real good team those two years (they won national titles),' Ackley said. In 2007, 'They were hot, and when one of those teams gets hot, it's tough to beat them.'

As a sophomore, Ackley hit .417 with a school-record 82 runs scored, seven home runs and 51 RBIs in 68 games. After offseason Tommy John elbow surgery, he moved to first base as a junior, earning national player-of-the-year honors. He hit .417 with 22 HRs and 73 RBIs in 66 games, finishing with a career .412 average.

'The three years in college, and especially going to the World Series, were great training for me (for the majors),' Ackley said. 'You're playing on front of 30,000 fans (in Omaha). That's as close as it gets to a big-league game. And you have the pressure of the national championship on the line. That helped prepare me for what I'm doing now.'

It didn't take Ackley long to reach the bigs after signing a five-year, $7.5-million contract with a $6-million bonus (his agent is Scott Boras) in August 2009. Ackley played 200 games in the minors, hitting .280 with a .387 on-base percentage.

Ackley was batting .303 with nine HRs in 66 games with Tacoma this season before singling off Philadelphia ace Roy Oswalt in his first big-league at-bat. Ackley got his first homer the next game.

'He can hit to left, he can hit to right, he can hit it anywhere,' Smoak said. 'And he's wearing out left-handers so far.'

Ackley has reached base safely in all 12 games and has hits in nine of the contests.

'Getting on base is the key thing,' he said, 'and hopefully getting to second base more often will be the next big thing, where a base hit will score me.'

Defensively, Ackley has made the transition to second base seamlessly in his second season at the position.

'I've felt great there all year, especailly after spring training,' he said. 'The more balls I got, the more comfortable I've felt.'

Smoak likes his new teammate's demeanor.

'He's level-headed,' Smoak said. 'He doesn't get too excited or too down. That's the main thing you have to take care of here. It's not an easy game. Everybody is going to have his ups and downs. Dustin is going to be able to handle it.'

The Mariners want to be careful not to put too much pressure on Ackley too soon. Problem is, they need him right now.

'He is going to be a very good major-league player,' Wedge said. 'It's too early to tell how good.

'He is going to (bat) up at the top of the lineup somewhere. What kind of power he is going to have, I don't know, but the main thing we want him to do for us is hit. Whatever else happens is a bonus.'