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August 30, 2013 at 9:55 PM

We just might have seen the birth of a Mariners center fielder tonight

Mariners center fielder Dustin Ackley had four hits and a spectacular fifth inning catch tonight. Photo Credit: AP

Mariners center fielder Dustin Ackley had four hits and a spectacular fifth inning catch tonight. Photo Credit: AP

Taijuan Walker collected his first major league win tonight and you can read about it in my story for tomorrow’s paper.

There hasn’t been too much I’ve liked about Dustin Ackley in the outfield up until now. His bat has been on fire for a month and was again with four hits tonight in a 7-1 rout of a really, really bad Houston Astros team. I say that “really, really bad” stuff with a purpose in mind, to tell you that we can’t get too revved up about certain stats and stuff considering the Mariners are pounding the tar out of a glorified AAA squad.

But all that said, there are some moments when it doesn’t matter who the opponent is.

And one of those came in the fifth inning, when Ackley sprinted what seemed like half a football field to deepest  right center and then made a sliding, warning track catch of a Robbie Grossman blast. It was the kind of catch Franklin Gutierrez used to make and perhaps the first time I’ve seen Ackley play the outfield in the majors and thought “Oh, that’s what the Mariners were thinking.”

It’s one play, sure. But on that play, Ackley looked like he could play center in the majors and play it well. Up to now, he looked more like an infielder filling in as an emergency outfielder. To be fair, as Eric Wedge pointed out, Ackley has been learning on-the-fly.

So, I asked Ackley about that catch.

“I saw the ball off the bat and I knew that the way it was hit, it had a chance to stay in the park,” Ackley said. “It had a lot of carry on it and it stayed in the air for a while. Fortunately, I was able to cover some ground and slide and avoid running into that wall.”

Thing is, Ackley has rarely used his speed to pull off a play like that in the month-plus he’s manned the outfield. There are times when balls that should have been caught have dropped in front of him. Or, more to the point, been allowed to drop in front of him because Ackley either got a bad read and arrived late or was just too indecisive about what to do next.

Wedge addressed that point post-game.

“There have been a few balls where, probably if he kept going as fast as he is, he might have gotten to, which he pulled up on,” Wedge said. “Which is normal because you don’t know the ballpark and you’re trying to be smart and make the right play. And that was one there where he kept going and made a heck of a catch. You see his progress, whether it be jumps on the ball, or routes or angles, where it gets better from week-to-week.”

And Wedge added that the time it’s taken for Ackley to learn those outfield basics really is not his fault.

“It’s been somewhat unfair to him kind of having to learn on-the-fly up here in center field or the outfield in general,” Wedge said. “I know he had a little bit of time in AAA but that’s tough to do up here with the speed of the game and different ballparks.”

But it was something the Mariners felt they had to do. They had Nick Franklin they wanted at second base and Ackley wasn’t hitting at the time.

I asked Ackley whether that catch he made was unchartered territory.

“I think everything for me in the outfield is sort of just learning on-the-fly,’’ Ackley said. “Just how to approach balls. I’ve never had a play like that where I just slid at the wall and had to avoid running into it. So, I think everything now for me is just learning different plays and different things.’’

And now, Ackley is hitting and Franklin struggling at the plate. There have been calls by some fans to stick Ackley back at second and I’ll tell you what, I’ve thought up to now that it might come down to one of Ackley or Franklin being traded this winter. Up to now, I’ve seen them as two second basemen going for the same position and said as much on my weekly Sports Radio KJR spot with Mitch Levy.

Now, I’m not so sure.

Because if Ackley can learn to play the outfield like that and cover that much ground chasing balls down, he could very well be a center fielder for this team moving forward. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to base an entire season’s judgment on one outfield play. All I’ll say now is, tonight, I finally saw the potential of Ackley as a center fielder. He’s got a long way to go and far more routine plays he has to start making with consistency. But no question he has the speed and the athleticism to run balls down.

And if he keeps hitting like that, the Mariners won’t have to get rid of anybody this winter. They need Franklin to start hitting again, but it’s only his first year.

So, let’s wait and see. Let’s see whether Ackley putting all of his baseball skills to work in the outfield becomes a routine occurrence. We’ve got another month for him to show us.

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