'Big night' from Kelenic helps Mariners gain

Rookie's first multi-homer game sinks Royals, helps Seattle in playoff chase

September 18th, 2021

KANSAS CITY -- faced Jon Heasley four times in the Minors in 2019, when they played in the humble ballparks of the Class A South Atlantic League. Kelenic, then the Mariners’ top prospect, went a combined 0-for-2 with two walks and a strikeout, and he was picked off once by Heasley, then one of the Royals’ top young arms.

Flash ahead more than two years and Kelenic and Heasley met again, this time under the bright lights at Kauffman Stadium, in the heat of a tight American League Wild Card race, and with Kelenic ultimately gaining the edge.

Kelenic clubbed two homers off Heasley to power the Mariners’ 6-2 series-opening win on Friday night. It was his first career multi-homer game, and his four RBIs tied a career high. More importantly, Seattle (79-68) moved 3 1/2 games back of a Wild Card spot, as the Red Sox (84-65) and Yankees (83-65) also won on Friday, while the Blue Jays (82-65) lost to the Twins.

Kelenic remembered his previous encounters with Heasley going into the matchup, but he knew the right-hander he saw while playing for Class A West Virginia was a different pitcher than the one he saw on the mound in Kansas City.

“I knew I had faced him in the past, but people change, and I'm sure his stuff has only gotten better over the years,” Kelenic said. “So I was just kind of going up with my own approach like I do any other pitcher."

The 22-year-old Kelenic stepped in with one out and one on in the second after Heasley retired the side in the first. Kelenic took three balls from Heasley before sitting on a strike, then turned on an 86.8 mph changeup to send a line-drive laser just past the foul pole.

Kelenic came around again in the fourth inning, once again with one on and one out. He again worked three straight balls to start the at-bat, but then fouled three straight offerings to work the count full before he clubbed homer No. 2 on a 78.1 mph curve.

Mariners manager Scott Servais was delighted with his young star’s performance, saying it was “the Jarred Kelenic show early.”

“Can't say enough about the night that Kelenic had,” Servais said. “That ball he hit to center field, that's a long way in this ballpark. He absolutely smoked it. Got the changeup for the first home run, got the curveball for the second home run. Big night for him.”

In fact, the two big flies were statistical benchmarks for Kelenic beyond his first multi-homer performance in the bigs. At 110.9 mph, the first homer was the hardest-hit ball of Kelenic’s career according to Statcast, and the towering two-run blast to center traveled a Statcast-projected 435 feet, also a career high.

"I guarantee you that will not be the farthest ball he hits, nor the hardest ball he hits,” Servais said with a smile.

Mariners starter Chris Flexen appreciated the early support as he went 5 2/3 strong innings, allowing just one run on six hits with two walks and three strikeouts to earn his 12th win of the season -- one that he was proud to help deliver at a crucial point in the season.

“The way I see it is, we're in the hunt, every game matters, and we're trying to pick up wins,” Flexen said. “So to be able to come out strong and put us in a situation to win a ballgame, and have the bullpen really lock it down, that's all you can ask for right now."

Flexen exited with two outs in the sixth after loading the bases. Servais summoned Joe Smith from the bullpen, just over three weeks removed from an appearance in which he gave up a winning grand slam to Salvador Perez. Much like Kelenic did with Heasley, though, Smith got the best of the Royals this time around, striking out Michael A. Taylor to end the inning and the threat.

“I've got a ton of confidence in Joe," Servais said. “When he gave up the grand slam, he happened to be pitching to the hottest hitter in the world at the time. … He was ready to go and he executed, huge out for us in tonight's game."

Heading down the stretch, breakout performances like the one Kelenic had in this one will only become more valuable as the Mariners continue to battle for a Wild Card spot. He knows that, and is grateful to see things start to turn around in his favor.

"I think any time that you go through struggles, it's, you know, God's way of really having you take a step back to it's your biggest opportunity to learn,” Kelenic said. “And that's really how I try to view it. … Obviously, I haven't 100 percent got it figured out yet, but you can see that I'm trending in the right direction, and that's a bonus."