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Originally published Friday, September 10, 2010 at 10:08 PM

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Larry Stone

Hope in air again at Safeco

Dustin Ackley has only strengthened the Mariners' conviction that he is an impact player waiting to happen.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

For five months, Safeco Field has been depression central, site of underachievement by an overhyped ballclub.

But Friday night, in front of a tiny, chilly crowd, the place was teeming with energy and optimism.

It was not a coincidence that the Mariners were 1,000 miles away in Anaheim.

The Tacoma Rainiers had the run of the place, and the Mariners' top minor-league affiliate served up a heaping helping of hope — the most precious commodity a baseball team can offer.

With the Rainiers displaced by a renovation project at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, they are taking temporary harbor during the Pacific Coast League playoffs in the precise locale where every member of their team yearns to reside on a permanent basis.

Fans can yearn as well, for Greg Halman to harness his tremendous power without the crippling strikeouts, for Justin Smoak to become the All-Star first baseman the Mariners envisioned when they made him the center piece of the Cliff Lee trade, for a Matt Mangini or Mike Carp to emerge as the surprise contributor.

And Friday, when Tacoma played Sacramento, they could look, up close and personal, at the brightest light of them all, Dustin Ackley.

As he nears the end of a whirlwind season that has seen him learn a new position and conquer a prolonged early slump, Ackley has only strengthened the Mariners' conviction that he is an impact player waiting to happen. He had a rough night Friday in the Rainiers' 6-2 defeat — 0 for 4 with two strikeouts and five runners stranded — but that hardly dims their enthusiasm.

"Ackley is a true professional, in all the meaning of that word," said Jose Castro, who took over as Tacoma's manager when Daren Brown replaced Don Wakamatsu. "He comes to the park, prepares himself — and the boy can hit. He's going to be a good one at the major-league level."

Taken immediately after Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft, Ackley now stands at the cusp of the major leagues. The Mariners, in their dreams, envision a high-average catalyst with surprising power and dynamic leadership skills.

"I feel better now than during the first two months of the season in West Tennessee," said Ackley, before his first appearance at Safeco since a couple of ceremonial batting practices after his signing. "It's a matter of getting adjusted, learning how to treat your body right and how to get rest.

"I feel I've come a long way since I've started. I've been hitting pretty good the past month, or two months, getting adjusted. I've faced a lot of guys in Triple-A who have been in the big leagues before. I feel I'm getting accustomed to facing arms who have been up here and know how to pitch."

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Not that Ackley is a finished product, at age 22, but he's getting closer by the day. After struggling to reach .200 for the first month of the season with Class AA West Tennessee, Ackley had lifted his average to .263 when he was called up to the Rainiers in mid-July.

For the Rainiers, he homered in his first at-bat at Class AAA and wound up hitting .274 in 52 games. In the first round of the playoffs, he has been a demon, going 5 for 9 in the first two games, both Rainiers wins, including a grand slam on Thursday.

The Mariners would like to see Ackley put on some muscle, and he's still a work in progress at second base, a position he had never played before the Mariners began converting him last winter in Arizona.

Asked how close Ackley was to the majors, Castro said, "I want to say another year maybe. For me. He's got a little ways to go at second base. He's picking it up. He turned a very nice double play (Thursday) night in the ninth inning — the best turn I've seen him make."

If you bend your mind, you can see what the Mariners see: A natural leader, and a player in the physical mode of Chase Utley.

"Different kind of player, but I saw Utley in Cape Cod — slender, fine-bone upper body," said Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara, who fell in love with Ackley at the University of North Carolina. "Now look at him. He's not a monster, but he's a physical guy now."

McNamara said of Ackley, "To start off that first month, and have that bad of a month, by his standards, and to get over the hump and go back to being the kind of player he is, says lot about his character."

Ackley said he had "a couple of minor slumps" at UNC, where he finished with a .412 career average.

"Never a whole month, or a whole month and a half, like this one," said Ackley. "I had never experienced this before. But I felt it was a matter of time before I adjusted and got out of it.

"I felt it was good for me. To have a whole year and never fail probably would have been worse than actually failing and coming out of it."

Much of the time in this dismal year, Safeco Field has been the home of failure. On Friday night, it was the harbor of hope.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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