McGrath: Ackley to hunt for his bat in Tacoma

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Precisely a month after a version of Dustin Ackley’s bat was given away to all kids 14 and younger at Safeco Field, the Seattle Mariners sent Ackley on a mission:

To find his bat in Tacoma.

Ackley on Monday became the second member of the Mariners’ youth movement jettisoned in five days. But unlike Jesus Montero, a sorta-but-not-really catcher who’ll try to learn how to play first base with the Rainiers, Ackley’s demotion qualifies as a surprise.

There were no whispers about his commitment to the craft. Ackley is a novice second baseman who turned himself into a superior second baseman through sheer repetition, and his maturity never has been an issue.

As recently as Friday, during an interview with KJR-AM, manager Eric Wedge all but dismissed the possibility of Ackley returning to Tacoma.

“You just can’t keep changing,” Wedge said. “They did that here for a lot of years — didn’t work. You gotta stick with the program.”

Perhaps, unless the program isn’t working.

When Ackley was chosen as the second overall selection of the 2009 draft, he showed up with the sort of compact swing often described as “effortless” and “pure.” Ackley wasn’t merely a College World Series participant at the University of North Carolina. He was the event’s equivalent of Ted Williams — its career record holder in hits, and the only player selected to three straight all-tournament teams.

Ackley reached Seattle after only 200 games on the farm. In his first Mariners plate appearance, against the Phillies’ Roy Oswalt at Safeco Field, the left-handed hitter lined a single between shortstop and second base. The big Friday night crowd gave him a standing ovation. I think I heard Rick Rizzs mention something on the radio about the dawn of “the Ackley Era.”

So what’s gone wrong?

How does a hard-working kid with a pure swing approach the end of May with a .205 batting average? How does the most accomplished hitter in the history of the College World Series put together a string of futility that on Sunday was extended to 0-for-19?

The Mariners aren’t sure.

As general manager Jack Zduriencik admitted Monday morning, before his team’s 9-0 victory over the Padres: “None of us have the exact answers. But we do know that if we

remove him from the bright lights of the major leagues and let him go down to Triple-A and regain his stride, there’s a history of what the guy has done that just stares you in the face.”

An inability to nurse counts into strike-zone pitches that can be driven stares you in the face, too. Ackley, 25, has devolved into a hitter comparable with Brendan Ryan, who owns slightly better on-base and slugging numbers and oh, by the way, doesn’t have the advantage of batting left-handed.

Wedge suggested Ackley’s emphasis on attempting to draw walks — and, thus, beef up his on-base percentage — has deprived him of the aggressiveness he brought to the plate as a rookie.

“It’s more of a mental approach or a mindset up there,” said Wedge. “It’s not his swing anymore. The guy just needs to get over some things mentally in regards to his approach.”

While Ackley works on his mental approach in Tacoma, the Mariners’ other first-round choice from the 2009 draft, switch-hitter Nick Franklin, gets to prove that his breakout spring with the Rainiers wasn’t a fluke.

When Franklin was introduced as the leadoff batter in the top of the eighth, the Memorial Day crowd of 18,942 gave him a standing ovation.

“Which got me even more nervous,” Franklin said afterward. “Then I was like, OK, this is just regular baseball. That’s how I calmed myself back down, which is kind of key for me.”

Franklin reached first on ball four, sustaining a pitch-recognition savvy he showed in Tacoma, where his .440 on-base percentage was augmented by the 30 walks he took in 39 games. A middle infielder who figures to play most of the time at second base, Franklin never has boasted the “can’t miss” profile of Ackley.

Before the season, you might recall, Franklin was among the prospects Zduriencik reportedly offered the Diamondbacks during trade talks for outfielder Justin Upton. But Franklin didn’t dwell on the notion the Mariners no longer wanted him. He chose to dwell on the notion somebody else did.

Two months later, he heard a standing ovation at Safeco Field, where Zduriencik’s youth movement has become less a program than a daily experiment with interchanging parts.

As for the guy Franklin replaced, the Mariners’ promotions department can only hope Ackley gets his groove back by July 13, when Safeco Field will be home for “Dustin Ackley Gnome Night.”

Who knows? By the time the Mariners give away Ackley gnomes to the first 20,000 fans, maybe he’ll have found his bat.

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