DENVER – Standing in the American League dugout Sunday for a prospects showcase he’d just as soon have been ineligible for, Jarred Kelenic calmly stated his desire to return to the Seattle Mariners.
And more to the point, made his case as to why he’s a changed man from the broken hitter who was sent to the minors in June, mired in an 0-for-39 slump.
“You know, I’m ready to go back,” Kelenic said. “I feel like the numbers I’ve put up, where I’m at mentally, I definitely think I’m ready to go back. And hopefully, it’s sooner rather than later.”
There are indeed indications that Kelenic’s second Mariners’ stint could happen as soon as Friday following the All-Star break, when the Mariners open the unofficial second half of the season in Anaheim against the Angels.
“That would be awesome,” Kelenic said, sidestepping a question about where his return plane ticket was sending him.
For the moment, Kelenic was trying to make the best of his second appearance in the Futures Game, which brings together the top minor-leaguers in conjunction with Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Coors Field. This is a guy who obviously didn’t expect the “minor-leaguer” designation ever again when he was called up to Seattle with much fanfare May 13.
Kelenic was still in Class A when he played in the 2019 Futures Game in Cleveland. But looking back, he realizes he was so stoked that he never gave himself a chance to enjoy himself. This time, he’s trying to savor the experience despite acknowledging that the circumstances that brought him here are kind of, well, weird.
“It is, but it isn’t,” he said. “I’m with a great group of guys, and I’m looking forward to enjoying this one more than I did the last one.”
It was quite a contrast from his Seattle phenom cohort, Julio Rodriguez, whose excitement for his first Futures Game appearance was evident as he flitted from interview to interview while interacting animatedly with teammates.
It has been a whirlwind year for Rodriguez, with more excitement to come. He dominated at Class A Everett to earn a promotion to Class AA Arkansas, while also helping the Dominican Republic earn a berth in the Olympics. Though he’ll head back to join Arkansas after the Futures Game, it won’t be long before Rodriguez takes off for Tokyo, with the Mariners’ blessing.
Rodriguez was one of the few to play the entire game Sunday in the American League’s 8-3 loss to the National League. His thunderous bat never revealed itself – he struck out twice, then walked but was thrown out trying to steal third. His final at-bat resulted in his third whiff, but it didn’t detract from his buoyant mood.
“This has been really good, enjoyable year, to be able to go to different places, play different ball,” Rodriguez said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
The fun is finally coming back for Kelenic, who has regained his stroke and his mental equilibrium in Tacoma after his demotion June 6. He hit just .096 (8 for 83) in his nearly monthlong stint with the Mariners, with 26 strikeouts.
He knew things had to change, and they have. Kelenic is 20 for 49 (.408) with four home runs in his past 12 games to bring his overall slash line for Tacoma to a dynamic .320/.392/.624.
But this is about far more than numbers. Kelenic, who grounded out to second base in his only at-bat Sunday, says he has learned not to obsess and stress when he struggles; he realizes he began to press to the point of distraction when he began his Mariners’ tumble. That only made his slump gain speed and then careen out of control.
“It’s just understanding the controllables,” he said. “Once you understand the things you can and can’t control, this game just mentally gets a lot easier. And that’s really what I’ve been focusing all my attention on. My ability is what it is. And as long as I can focus on what I can and can’t control, the rest will take care of itself.”
Kelenic echoed the words Mariners’ general manager Jerry Dipoto spoke last week: That this whole incident will one day be regarded as a blessing in disguise for Kelenic. That sentiment came forward when it was pointed out to him that it appears he has been humbled by the demotion.
“From the outside looking in, I can understand why people think that, you know, I’ve been humbled,” he said. “But I feel like I’ve never been somebody that has been too high about anything. It was definitely a big learning adjustment that I had to make. And I know five years from now, two years from now, when I look back on this it’s probably going to be the best thing that’s ever happened.”
Dipoto said the Mariners’ belief in Kelenic’s potential is as strong as ever.
“Obviously, it wasn’t an easy month for him in the big leagues for the most part,” Dipoto said. “But his skills and his polish are undeniable. I think he put a lot of pressure on himself. And there was a lot of external pressure on him from a variety of angles, including ours.
“None of us wavers at all on his upside and what he’ll do. … Every night down in Tacoma, Jarred doesn’t have to worry about his skills. It’s a matter of managing the broader game, his instincts, his baseball IQ, the quality of his swing, the power. And I think his expectations of himself tend to sometimes make it run a little faster. You just need to slow the game down. When he learns to truly slow the game down, it’s gonna get loud.”
“Loud” is the word to describe Rodriguez’s season. After hitting .325/.410/.581 with six homers for Everett, he is dominating Class AA (.303/.465/.455) in his first 10 games with Arkansas. In between, he showed himself to be the best player on Team Dominican in two stints of Olympic qualifying.
And in addition to the thrill of being anointed one of the top minor-leaguers, Rodriguez was excited to be reunited with Kelenic.
The two have long been regarded as the brightest lights in the organization, and embrace the notion. Julio is still 20, while Kelenic turns 22 next week. They have developed an affectionate relationship but hadn’t seen each other since spring training.
They batted back-to-back in the Futures Game, Kelenic hitting second and playing left, Rodriguez batting third and playing right. Mariners’ fans can dream of the day in the not-so-distant future when that becomes a regular occurrence.
“I know the fans are looking forward to seeing it,’’ Kelenic said. “And I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Kelenic’s next crack at the majors seems imminent. As for Rodriguez, he hopes to earn his way into a second-half call-up, but his coming-out moment is more likely to be in 2022. They have taken note of the Mariners’ current surge and are burning to be a part of it.
“It’s really hard not to think of it,’’ Rodriguez said.
It was a sentiment shared by Kelenic. And this time, he’s ready to make it permanent.
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