By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
They have known each other most of their lives, two North Carolinans who grew up playing baseball with and against one another, and Kyle Seager knows Dustin Ackley’s swing as well as his own.
“Dustin’s swing hasn’t changed since we were kids,” Seager said. “Always that sweet swing. I don’t see any difference in it today.”
The two played college ball together and now are both Seattle Mariners. Seager is having a breakout season, leading the team in batting average and RBI.
And Ackley, who embodied the hope of a franchise in 2011, is struggling.
“Major league baseball isn’t easy by any means,” Ackley said. “The competition is beyond better, it’s the best in the world. I feel I’m a couple of at-bats from where I want to be.
“I’ve felt like that all season.”
Ackley is batting .249 with four home runs and 20 RBI in 57 games. The worst, he said, has been the inconsistency of 2012.
“The other day, I struck out my first two at-bats and it felt like I had a hole in my bat,” Ackley said. “I went back to the dugout thinking ‘I usually crush that pitch.’ “
If the 24-year-old second baseman is confused, a bit lost at times, the numbers reflect it. On April 28, he was batting .268. A week later, he was at .232. By mid-May, Ackley was batting .262 again — then lost 20 points in 10 days.
“A lot of times it’s more me than it is the pitcher. I’ll miss a pitch in a spot where I don’t usually miss it,” Ackley said. “Your swing isn’t always where you want it.
“Sometimes your bat doesn’t go where you think it’s going and you miss a ball by a few centimeters. Instead of a line drive, you hit a ground ball.”
Manager Eric Wedge and batting coach Chris Chambliss have worked with, talked to and watched Ackley all season.
“Occasionally he gets out front, he’s too aggressive. At times he’s been passive,” Wedge said. “Pitchers make you adjust, and they’ve pitched him tough.”
Ackley knows how he’s being pitched.
“Over time, you see the adjustments pitchers are making on you. I see more high fastballs with two strikes. Sometimes they come in hard with two strikes,” Ackley said.
“Not every time, and not every pitcher. That would make it an easier adjustment on my part. Pitchers are smart. They don’t approach you the same way each time.
“I’ve chased their pitches too often.”
Not once, Chambliss said, has Ackley stopped working.
“I’ve watched video, talked to teammates and coaches, taken time off and taken extra batting practice. It feels like the same swing,” Ackley said.
“It’s going to come today or in a couple of days. I’ll throw out some hits and get the feel back. I’m not in panic mode. This isn’t the first time I’ve struggled — I had months like this in the minors, too.
“What it taught me is that there is a light at the end.”
Which hasn’t made the first 21/2 months of the season easy. Ackley has now played 147 major league games in his career and batted .263. It’s not what he expected of himself.
“It’s tough without the results. You want to help the team. You want to hit well. When that’s not happening, yeah, it’s frustrating,” Ackley said.
“Everything feels the same except getting hits. I’m off just enough to make a difference.”
The frustration is real and tangible — but never obvious.
“I don’t throw bats, and by the time I get home I don’t want to kick the dog or yell,” Ackley said. “After a bad at-bat I go back, sit down. I’d probably pull a muscle throwing a bat.
“I’ve seen guys ‘snap’ since I was 14. What good would it do me to throw a bat and have it rebound and hit me or hit a teammate?
“I’ve had good stretches, bad ones. The toughest thing to find is consistency. I’ll have a good game and two days later, it’s not there. I’ll feel like I’m getting it going and then we’ll run into a guy like Chris Sale in Chicago, and it throws you back off,” Ackley said.
“I look around the league, there are guys doing better than a year ago and guys doing worse. It’s June, we have 100 games left. Things cool off and heat up.”
He thinks back to last year, when he faded in September because his body simply wore out.
“I wasn’t catching up to 94-95 (mph) fastballs. Over the offseason I got stronger, I’ve kept weight on this year,” Ackley said.
“Struggling is an empty feeling. Something is not quite where it needs to be. It might be physical, mental and the first thing you have to do is find it.
“In the minors, struggling was good for me. I had to find a way out of it, and I found out what kind of person I am,” Ackley said.