Kelenic impresses as Seattle comes up short

July 28th, 2021

SEATTLE -- Even on nights they lose, it seems like there’s not much that can halt the Mariners’ magic these days.

Seattle fell, 8-6, to Houston on Tuesday night at T-Mobile Park, but not until after sending the winning run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of a game in which it once trailed by six. The Mariners overcame a seven-run deficit to win, 11-8, on Monday.

Even in defeat, Seattle remained one game back of the second American League Wild Card spot after Oakland lost in San Diego.

Abraham Toro made a strong first impression, swatting a pinch-hit two-run homer to make it a two-run game in the ninth -- a little more than 24 hours after he went deep from the same batter’s box, but in a Houston uniform. He was one of three players acquired by Seattle as part of two trades on Tuesday.

But the most promising individual development was that of Jarred Kelenic.

Seattle’s struggling rookie scored on Toro’s homer after leading off the ninth with a single against Astros All-Star closer Ryan Pressly. Kelenic, MLB Pipeline's No. 4 overall prospect, also had a two-run single in the sixth for his first RBIs since May 26. It marked his first multi-hit and multi-RBI game since May 14, when he homered for his first big league hit.

Kelenic said that he made an in-game adjustment with his stance and load against Houston right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. by standing more upright to help him better decipher breaking pitches -- which have been his most glaring challenge in the big leagues, especially when he gets to two strikes.

“I've been hunched over when I've been swinging,” Kelenic said. “And I think that, just where my eyes have been set up, it's kind of made those pitches, those hanging, breaking balls, look higher than they are. And then that's why I freeze a little bit, and then I'm more susceptible to the pitches down. And that's where pitchers make their money, is getting guys to chase down. So it really wasn't a good mix.”

But Kelenic's biggest highlight was his sensational diving snag and throw in the eighth that doubled up Martín Maldonado off second base. Kelenic covered 49 feet in 3.3 seconds to convert the play, which had a 15-percent catch probability per Statcast -- the lowest for a catch by a Mariners outfielder this season -- and his throw was at 86.5 mph.

“I thought that was a fantastic defensive play,” Seattle manger Scott Servais said. “It doesn't get any better.”

It’s been a trying season for Kelenic, who struck out in his first two at-bats to raise his K rate since returning from Triple-A Tacoma to an alarming 48.9 percent. Yet, he began channeling the competitive intensity that helped him soar through the Minors toward harsh self-accountability when he struggled in the Majors, creating a mentally unhealthy formula, he and the Mariners have said.

That’s what made the small victories, such as those on Tuesday, all the more important. Kelenic has smiled more in recent days after contributing to the series win over Oakland, including a critical six-pitch walk that put him on base and led to him scoring the game-winning run via a wild pitch on Saturday.

“I've worked my [butt] off to just keep grinding and getting through this, because I haven't really ever struggled before,” Kelenic said. “And struggling here is hard, especially when you have all those people that are yelling at you to do better and you want to do better, and it's just not going better. And there's a lot of things that just kind of can get in the way.”

Kelenic is still sorting through the mental challenges of adversity in the big leagues. He’s wired so intensely that he never gives away an at-bat, and when he does struggle, his victims of frustration are equipment in the dugout. That was the primary reason Seattle sent him back to Triple-A Tacoma in June for a five-week mental reset.

Now, the Mariners are going to keep giving Kelenic a chance to sort his way through with this refreshed approach -- one that is admittedly challenging to maintain when the chase of process is there, but the results haven’t been. Kelenic is hitting .154/.233/.154 in 11 games since returning to the Majors after Tuesday’s 2-for-4 showing.

“I’ve really just tried to understand what I can and can't control,” Kelenic said. “And it's definitely helped me to, when stuff's not going right, still stay positive and still try to find a way to make adjustments. Because like anything in life, when you're frustrated, it's hard to think with a clear head.”

“It’s nice to see him smile, and I know he's grinding right now,” Servais said. “But sometimes, that's all it takes. You get a soft hit like that with runners in scoring position, you relax. He gets another good at-bat after that. We're going to need him down the stretch. He's a very talented guy. I love having him on the team, and it was nice to see a few hits fall in for him.”