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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

June 19, 2011 at 11:51 PM

Dustin Ackley’s impressive weekend, Chone Figgins’ ongoing struggles, and other bleacher observations

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I had a unique perspective for the three-game series with the Phillies. I watched two of them from the stands with my family — Friday night’s game sitting in box seats between first and home (primo seats), and Sunday’s game in the upper deck in right field, above the foul pole, sitting with my son’s Little League team (nosebleed seats, but lots of fun). You can see our view pictured above (and if you look carefully, you can see the Mariner Moose amongst us). The middle game, on Saturday, I watched every pitch on television at home.

It’s a rarity for me to watch a game, let alone two in one series, from the stands, because I’m usually in the press box working. And when I dropped into the press box Friday night to say hello to my media pals (and I’ll be completely honest here, to use the restroom without having to wait in line), I was greeted as a complete pariah. That’s because Michael Pineda had a no-hitter going at the time, and I seem to have a reputation, for some odd reason, as a no-hitter killer. Perhaps that’s because in 25-plus years covering baseball, I’ve never seen a no-hitter. Watched quite a few get broken up in the late innings, however, including one by Scott Garrelts of the Giants with two outs in the ninth in the early 1990s. Certain Mariner employees who shall remain nameless grimaced when I walked in in the sixth inning, and sure enough, I was there for about three minutes before Shane Victorino broke up Pineda’s no-no. I refuse to take the blame, even though once Ryan Divish of the TNT tweeted about my presence in the box, I was inundated with tweets from people blaming me for Victorino’s hit. Trust me, my magic is not that powerful.

A couple things struck me being out among the people. First, I obviously knew folks were down on Chone Figgins, but I guess I didn’t quite realize the depth of their enmity until I witnessed it from the bleachers. Figgins had a pretty miserable game on Friday, except for starting a nifty 5-4-3 double play. And the murmur of discontent grew into a roiling tidal wave of disgust as the game progressed, and he kept making weak outs and botched a couple of defensive plays. There was some pretty cruel stuff being shouted his way, in between the booing. Unless he’s wearing some spare Milton Bradley earplugs, Figgins has to be picking up on that hostility, and it can’t be a great feeling. Of course, there’s only one way to win the fans back, and that’s by performing better. At this point, however, you have to wonder about his frame of mind knowing most of the home fans are completely fed up with him (with just cause, of course).

Dustin Ackley, on the other hand, is already well on his way to being a cult hero. His first three games couldn’t have been much more impressive, from the pop he showed at the plate to the range and sure-handedness he displayed in the field. Fans pretty much went nuts when, in his first at-bat in the major leagues, Ackley fell behind Roy Oswalt 0-2 and then drilled a solid single up the middle. It was an electric moment, especially from the stands, where the guttural roar was of a kind I haven’t heard much at Safeco for awhile.

Ackley wasn’t supposed to have power, but he absolutely crushed that home run on Saturday. I’m not exactly sure where his triple ended up on Sunday, because from my seats high in the upper deck in right, the deepest part of right field was not visible. But no doubt that ball, off left-hander Cole Hamels, no less, was crushed as well. In fact, Ackley hit a couple of other balls hard in the three games with nothing to show for it. It’s pretty clear that big-league pitching is not going to intimidate Ackley, and that he’s a pure hitter with great instincts and approach. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to struggle, but it’s hard not to believe he has a great chance to be a productive major-league hitter.

The question with Ackley has been his glove, but he looked sharp all weekend and went a long way toward erasing a few doubts. The show-stopper was the aforementioned 5-4-3 double play in which he stood in there with Carlos Ruiz bearing down on him and made a strong throw to nip Jimmy Rollins at first. He turned the pivot on another double play, and on Sunday showed off his range on a couple of other grounders, including one by Ryan Howard. Granted, Ackley playing at outfield depth, but he still had to go far to his left to make the stop and gun down Howard. Making the routine plays is half the battle, and he did that as well.

By Sunday, fans were totally on the Ackley bandwagon. After his triple, people in the nosebleed seats were high-fiving, fist-pumping and marveling to their friends about this new phenom. I witnessed conversations stopping in mid-sentence whenever Ackley came up. Obviously, there will be bumps along the way, as there are for every rookie, but Ackley certainly showed the potential to justify his No. 2 selection in the 2009 draft.

It’s been a long time since I saw as much energy at Safeco Field as I did on Friday and again on Sunday, from the first pitch by Jason Vargas to the last one by him to complete a three-hit shutout of the best team in baseball. When Eric Wedge decided to leave Vargas in for the last out, the people around me went crazy. By the end of the game, fans had even stopped booing Figgins, for the most part. It’s amazing what winning can do.

My next posts will be from Washington D.C., where I’ll be covering the interleague series with the Nationals.

From the press box.

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