By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Dustin Ackley refuses to make excuses for last season.
Yes, there were days when his left ankle ached so much in the morning he would wonder how he could possibly play that night. Day games? They were a pain-filled fight just to get warmed up for, let alone play.
Outside of Mariners management, team trainers and maybe a few teammates, no one knew what Ackley was playing through.
It would have been easy to talk to the media about the injury, considering he was in the midst of the single worst season in his baseball career.
But that’s not how Ackley operates.
Instead, he quietly endured the pain and fought his way through a forgettable sophomore big league season.
Now it’s a new year. He had surgery to remove a bone spur in his left ankle the day after the 2012 season ended.
“I feel a difference,” he said. “It will still get sore right now with the workload and the days like this. But overall, the pain that was there before I haven’t really felt it there so far yet. It’s been a good thing.”
Finally healthy, he is ready to put last year behind him.
“Absolutely, I’m going to approach it like that — new season, new spring,” he said. “I’m ready to go. We’ll see where it takes me.”
It has to take him up because it certainly can’t take him down.
Last year was the worst hitting season for Ackley at any level of baseball. He hit .226 (137-for-607) with 22 doubles, 12 homers and 50 RBI. Perhaps even more telling was the fact he struck out 124 times, while posting just a .294 on-base percentage and a .328 slugging percentage.
“That was really the only season I’ve ever hit that low,” he said. “That’s a tough road. You always expect to do well and to expect good things from yourself. And to not do that is pretty tough.”
The frustration, the struggle, the grind were all emotionally draining. But rarely would Ackley break his traditional even-keeled appearance on the field.
“There was a bunch of times I wanted to boil over,” he said. “I don’t think you really can. You have to stay within yourself, keep playing games, stay day to day with everything. If it was football and I had a week to think about it, I probably would have boiled over a little bit.”
And throughout all that time, Ackley never uttered a word about the searing pain in his ankle.
“I never really thought it was an excuse because I could play on it,” he said. “There’s probably tons of guys out there that have nagging things but never talk about it. If it was something that was preventing me from playing or something that was really hurting, that I thought was affecting my game I would have said something.”
Even now in spring training, when he’s had time to reflect, Ackley wouldn’t use the ankle as an excuse for his hitting struggles.
“When I was in the box and the adrenaline was pumping, I didn’t really feel it ever,” he said. “Maybe it did. I can’t say that it (affected me) when I didn’t feel it in the box. It’s hard for me to say that’s the reason I hit bad.”
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said the injury may have been “a small part” of Ackley’s struggles, but respects that his second baseman wouldn’t offer it up as the main reason.
“That’s part of his character, that’s part of his professionalism and just one of the many reasons, I think he’s going to be a solid big league player,” Wedge said.
Another reason Wedge should be optimistic is Ackley’s willingness to admit something was wrong with his swing and approach and then working to rectify it in the offseason.
“Last offseason after the year was over with, I didn’t feel like anything was really wrong,” Ackley said. “Early on, I was hitting great. I was feeling unbelievable. Going into the offseason, I was just, ‘OK, I’ve got to keep doing what I was doing, continue to improve, and things will be OK.’ But that wasn’t the case. This offseason, I knew it’s time to really get into it and get after it, and that’s what I did.”
Ackley took a month off after the season to decompress and reflect a little. He started hitting with a group of friends in November and didn’t stop. He came to spring training with a different look to his swing, particularly from the start.
In past years, Ackley would start with a slightly open stance and his shoulders parallel to home plate — pretty traditional by baseball standards. This spring, he starts with the bat resting on his shoulder and his torso facing the pitcher. As the pitch is being delivered, he slides his shoulders back to parallel to the plate and then starts his swing.
“That’s something I’ve been doing a lot this offseason, just trying to get my swing in a good position to hit,” Ackley said. “It’s been working all offseason, so I’m going to take it into the spring, and hopefully the season, and see where it goes from there.”
What is it supposed to do?
“It just puts me in a good hitting position,” he said. “Last year, with the old stance I had, there was no separation, my hands, and everything. I worked on it a lot this offseason just to get that feel of maybe what it used to feel like, as opposed to last year, when I didn’t really know what was going on. I think that was important for me this offseason.”
It’s certainly very different, but Wedge has no problem with it if it helps Ackley be the hitter everyone believed he would be when the Mariners selected him with the No. 2 pick of the 2009 draft.
“It’s interesting,” Wedge said. “Every spring you see guys come in and they are tweaking this and tweaking that. That’s a little bit more of a change. He’s just going to have to make sure he gets the timing down with that approach. He still has to make sure he gets in a good position to hit.”
As Ackley talked about last season, dealing with the injury, struggling at the plate while shining in the field, he took a philosophical approach about it all.
“I think going through that is probably going to be important for me for my career — to know that I’ve been there and know how to handle those situations,” he said. “It was bad last year but I think it’s going to be a good thing for me in the long term.”