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by Editor, Rick Cabral

(Editor's Note: Dustin Ackley was recalled by the Mariners and will make his professional debut at Safeco Field Friday, June 17, 2011)

DUSTIN ACKLEY -- Natural Born Hitter

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As a youth, Dustin Ackley could play with the big boys. Growing up in Walnut Cove, North Carolina, he served as the bat boy for older brother Jordan's summer ball teams that were comprised of some of the best talent in the Tar Heel state. He even got a few at bats in some of the blow-out games, permitting him to face pitchers as much as four years older than him. His father spent seven years in the Red Sox organization. So, it's understandable that Ackley would become a natural born hitter.

No one could have predicted, however, that he would eventually become the all-time hits leader at the College World Series (28) and lead North Carolina to the CWS all  three years (2007-2009) in college, where he compiled a .412 career batting average. This 3-time All-American was drafted second overall by the Seattle Mariners in the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft.

While the Tar Heels have returned to the CWS this year, Ackley is on the doorstep of reaching his dream of playing in the major leagues. Tacoma played at Raley Field this week, and we sat down for a one-one-one interview with one of the finest hitters ever to play college baseball.

B/S: Looking back at UNC, you played in 3 College World Series (CWS) and was a key reason why the Tar Heels consistently made it to Omaha. First off, describe that college experience, especially playing at the highest level so frequently.  

"It's something that I would never take back, ever. I had a chance to go in the draft out of high school but to think about if I had missed those three years of school, it would've been something crazy. It was an unbelievable experience. Looking back on it now it still makes me kind of excited to watch those guys (UNC 's 2011 team) now because I was there and I knew how excited I was. They are one game now away now from making it to Omaha. So I was able to watch some of it (UNC vs. Stanford in the Super Regionals at Chapel Hill, NC) on ESPN 2. That's a great time for those guys, especially the ones that haven't made it there yet. It's a special time."

B/S: Have you always been a "natural-born" hitter?  Who gets the credit for you being such a good hitter? 

(He relates that his father John Ackley played in the Red Sox organization seven years. An arm injury sidelined his catching career after reaching Triple-A. His brother Jordan, four years older, played four years at Lenoir-Rhyne, a Division II school in Hickory NC. Growing up, Jordan played on summer ball teams with some of North Carolina's best, and Dustin served as bat boy.)

"My dad, my brother. All those guys growing up. I was able to just watch things. My brother was always on good summer ball teams. They had guys from all over North Carolina. Just to watch those guys, see what they did every day. Picking up on things, it was a great chance for me to take everything in. Just watching those guys play was a pretty  good thing for me.

B/S: Younger brothers of good athletic players often develop faster and learn not to be intimidated by good competition. 

"I was even able to get some at bats, even as the bat boy, in some of the tournaments that (Jordan) was in, where the games were blown out. It was definitely cool to play with kids that were four years older than me. It was kind of a great chance to develop as a hitter and things like that.

B/C: What did you hit in high school? 

"Probably overall, every year, the high four hundreds. I played at a 1-A school my first three years and transferred to a 4-A school, and hit 420-something there my senior year.  (Editor's Note: He played one year at North Forsyth High School, where he earned preseason and postseason Louisville Slugger All-America honors as a senior. He also played three years at South Stokes High School, where he was conference player of the year as a junior, and helped South Stokes to North Carolina 1A state titles in 2003 and 2004.)

B/S: Being the 2nd overall pick in the 2009 MLB Amateur draft, do you think there was an advantage to not being the #1 guy and having the bullseye on your back? 

"Strasburg (#1 pick out of San Diego State by Washington) was definitely one of those guys where everyone behind him—I mean, he was going to be in the spotlight. That guy deserves every bit of it. He throws 102 mph, with every pitch in the book. It's kinda good, you kinda like that, layin' low, layin back…

B/S:  …but number two's not too bad, right? 

"If you think about number two picks from the past, those are guys that are Hall of Famers. I mean that's one pick away from the A-Rod's, the Ken Griffey Jr.'s and things like that. It was definitely a cool thing to have him ahead of me. I mean if you wanted to have one ahead of you, he'd (Strasburg) be the one."

B/S: When you got selected, that was your junior year if I remember and you had just set the record for most hits in the College World Series, and you'd really demonstrated that you were an elite player at that level and number two is not too shabby, that clearly stood out in my mind. But that's college—this is pro, which is a business. How did coach Mike Fox's program (UNC) help prepare you for the big stage, when it comes? 

"I mean everything, developing as a person. It's kind of the same clubhouse atmosphere; if you get out of line, you're going to have those veteran guys in the locker room in college that are going to say things. That's one thing that really helped me, as far as baseball.

"And living on my own. You're out here (Triple-A), you're out in the middle of nowhere sometimes, and you're like 'I don't have anybody here. There's no family, no friends.' It's just your teammates, that's it. I think that's something that really helped me in college. Just learning how to play the game. I mean, that's the biggest thing."

B/C: They (UNC) had a pretty good fundamental program, right? 

"Yeah, we did. College, you're there to win, to make it to the CWS and you're going to do whatever it takes. That's one thing about college that's really good: you're there for your team. I mean, individual things, you've got to throw those out in college or some people are going to be all over you."

B/S: Compare college pitching to what you see at Triple-A. 

"There's some similarities. In college, I'd see some guys during the week at in-state schools that might not have been what you'd see here (Triple-A). But in the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), you see some guys on Friday, Saturday nights that are going to be pretty similar to this. I mean, I've actually faced guys in pro ball that I saw in college.

"So, it's a little bit different. I mean, you're seeing those guys every night (now) with a couple of good pitches that locate every single night, and you've got to take advantage of what you've got."

B/S: In terms of stuff, location, do you have a contrast? 

"Yeah, those things are similar. The (strike) zones are a little tighter here in Triple-A, which helps the hitter. That's a big key. As far as stuff goes, the guys that are here, they usually have two pitches that they can locate any time. And they have two other pitches usually. It's a tough thing. That's the biggest adjustment you see: 2-0, 3-1 you can see anything, it doesn't matter what it is.  I think that's the toughest part."

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B/S: It seems be just a matter of time before you get brought up to the Mariners. This year, your second with Tacoma, your average is near .300, on base percentage is well over .400, and your OPS(On-Base Plus Slugging) is over .900. You're doing well offensively. So, what else do they want to see? 

"Just getting more experience down here. This is only my second year in pro ball. I'm starting to feel more comfortable at second base (he played first base and outfield at UNC) every day, and that's going to be a key for me, playing real good defense. Second base is a spot where you can't have any slip-ups because you're turning the double play (relay) from short and third base. You have to make those plays. I think that's a big thing. As well as base running. Stealing bases is a big part of Seattle's game: the big field, you've to move runners over, you've got to steal bases…"

B/S: Have the Mariners told you what are the things to work on in your game?

"No, not really. they haven't said anything that would determine whether I go up or not. I'm just down here, trying to improve every aspect. Whenever that time is, I mean, I'm not sure they even know when that time is. So, it's going to be playing it by ear right now and just continuing to improve every day down here."

B/S: What has
been the hardest part of converting from first base to second base? 

"I think the biggest adjustment has been the double play from short or third. That was the hardest thing, getting your footwork, getting the timing. Knowing your guys over there, how they throw. Also, knowing the runner coming at you, you've got to be aware of him. For me, that was probably the biggest part. The thing that was really tough is that I had never played that position before…"

B/S: I wondered whether you had played middle infield in high school... 

"I played shortstop (in high school). But thinking back on it, shortstop and second base are two different things. It's totally different. You're turning double plays from different angles. It's a big difference. I found that out pretty quick. It's been a tough journey, but I feel like I've come a long way."

B/S: Having played in the CWS three times and being on the big stage in the spotlight, do you think that will help prepare you, when you walk on a major league field for the first time? 

Listen to Dustin Ackley's response below: 

"Yeah, that's going to definitely help me. The College World Series is the closest thing to a major league game. I remember my freshman, sophomore years (at the CWS), we had thirty-plus-thousand fans (sic) there (Note: Rosenblatt Stadium capacity was 23,145). That's more than any big league game, usually, unless you get a Boston or Yankees game or things like that. I think that's something that definitely helps you. You've been in that environment with everybody surrounding you—the whole stadium—and fans everywhere yellin'. I think that is going to be something that's going to calm me a little bit, to know that I've been there before. This is not anything that I haven't done. I think that will definitely help."  

B/S: Being a kid from North Carolina, do you find the West Coast, and living up in the Northwest an adjustment? 
"It's definitely an adjustment, uh, there's different weather. It's cold in Tacoma early on and you have to get used to that. I mean, it is an adjustment, but once you start playing it's the same game. A little bit, but not much."

 



Originally published 06/11/11
Updated 06/16/11

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© Rick Cabral, 2011

 

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