Mariners’ Ackley bats 8th in lineup in opener

OAKLAND — Dustin Ackley was penciled into the No. 8 spot in the Seattle Mariners opening day lineup and he was perfectly fine with it.

Manager Eric Wedge started batting Ackley in the bottom part of the order about the middle of spring training, saying it’s where they planned to have him to start the regular season.

Is it a function of the improvement of talent around him, or indicative of his struggles last season? Well, it’s a little of both. The Mariners definitely have added talent. The addition of Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse and the removal of Ichiro Suzuki affected the lineup. The emergence of Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders and the health of Franklin Gutierrez also changed things.

“If you look up and down our lineup, we’ve got guys who can hit anywhere,” Ackley said. “I think it’s good to be in a lineup where guys are probably going to be on base when you are up to bat. It’s going to be fun to watch.”

He isn’t bitter about the change.

“It’s going to be fun to get on base and once the lineup turns over it gives a chance to Guti and Saunders to have some RBI opportunities,” Ackley said.

Of course, the struggles of last season cannot be overlooked. There were times two years ago where Ackley seemed destined to be a hitter in the first three spots in the lineup. That changed after a disappointing 2012. Ackley had his worst professional season, hitting .226 with a .294 on-base percentage and a .328 slugging percentage. Even worse he looked lost and frustrated at the plate while striking out 130 times.

Ackley admitted he was a mess by the middle of the season and just couldn’t right himself. His swing felt disjointed. He wasn’t comfortable at the plate. And all the qualities and skills that made him the No. 2 pick of the 2009 amateur draft seemed to be in doubt.

In the offseason, he revamped his swing. The most noticeable difference is hand and body position before the pitch.

In past years, Ackley would start with a slightly open stance and his shoulders parallel to home plate — traditional by baseball standards. This spring, he starts with the bat rested on his shoulder and his torso facing the pitcher. As the pitch is delivered, he slides his shoulders back to parallel to the plate and then starts his swing.

It’s been a process this spring trying to find a comfort level with it.

“It’s still gradual,” he said. There were good days and bad days with it. The first couple games were kind of tough. The second week I felt much better. I feel as good now as I can about it.”

Ackley hit .365 (19-for-52) with a double and two triples and five RBI in spring training. Not exactly eye-popping numbers, but he seemed to look more comfortable at the plate. It’s still a work in progress.

“The only time I get in trouble is when I’m just a little late getting ready,” he said. “But other than, everything has been good so far. I just have to make sure I’m ready early and see the ball and hit it.”

One of the purposes for Ackley was to bring balance to his stance and swing. Last year, he had so much leg movement and was pulling off pitches.

“That was a main goal to get my legs under me,” he said. “I felt like last year I wasn’t hitting with any legs at all. It was mostly upper body trying to compensate for things.”

There was no balance to the swing. And there was no way to be successful hitting like that. This year he feels the difference.

“When you don’t have that balance you are susceptible to offspeed pitches and things like that,” he said. “Last year, I was kind of a victim of that. I was hitting fastballs if they were thrown in certain spots. Now I’m better equipped to hit breaking balls, changeups, and certain things. Last year, it was tough to take those pitches in the dirt, or even hit those pitches if they were strikes.”

Ackley feels different, better at the plate.

“I have better balance now than I did in 2011 and 2012,” he said. “I feel good where my balance is at.”

Ackley is also fully healthy. The offseason ankle surgery has helped. The pain is gone.

“I think it’s pretty much behind me,” he said. “I think it’s something that will get better as the year goes on with the strength in my calf, foot and ankle area.”

Short hops

Felix Hernandez had a pregame present for John Jaso. The Mariners ace gave his former catcher a brand new Rolex watch as a reward for catching his perfect game last season on Aug. 15 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Hernandez couldn’t deliver it himself because the A’s were already on the field hitting. … The sold-out crowd saved their loudest boos for Hernandez when the starting lineups were announced. It had Hernandez laughing in the bullpen. … Manager Eric Wedge said that he could flip-flop Justin Smoak (No. 5) and Kyle Seager (No. 6) in the lineup based on whether the starting pitcher was right or left-handed. … It was the first major league opening day for Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor and Brandon Maurer. Conversely, Raul Ibanez’s first major league opening day was in 1999 in the Kingdome. “Remember, they had the lights on the ground when you came out,” Ibanez said. … Every player in major league baseball wore commemorative patches honoring the lives lost during the Sandy Hook elementary shooting tragedy. There was also a moment of silence observed pregame in their honor.

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