Drayer: Mariners’ Kelenic receives ‘painful lesson’ and reminder of why he plays

Jul 20, 2023, 7:16 PM | Updated: Jul 21, 2023, 12:58 pm

Seattle Mariners Jarred Kelenic...

Jarred Kelenic of the Seattle Mariners reacts to a strike out against the Chicago White Sox. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

(Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Jarred Kelenic, who represented the tying run for the Seattle Mariners in the bottom of the ninth inning Wednesday night, was eight pitches in to an at-bat against Jhoan Duran, one of the top relievers in the game, who was touching 103 and 104 mph with his fastball.

“No matter how this at-bat ends for Jarred Kelenic, it feels like this is shaping up to be put on the short list of his best at-bats of the year.”  – Aaron Goldsmith

On pitch No. 9, Duran snuck a curveball in on the outer edge of the plate, a true pitcher’s pitch that Kelenic did not offer at. Strike three.

What happened after was not seen by those watching on TV or listening on the radio. Frustrated that he was not able to come through in a big situation, Kelenic kicked a Gatorade cooler on the dugout floor. X-rays would later determine that the result of the kick was a broken a bone in his left foot. While surgery is not required, no timetable for his return was given.

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“I just, I just made a mistake,” were the first words an already red-eyed and tearful Kelenic gave the media when he met with them Thursday morning. “I let it get the best of me there. I just feel terrible, especially for the guys. I let them down. I take full responsibility for it. It just can’t happen.”

It can’t happen. But it did and it does.

Many who who had been deriding the Mariners on social media for appearing to not care about the team failing to meet expectations this season appreciated the emotion shown by Kelenic. The broken foot a sign he truly cares, is passionate about winning. All true, but you didn’t see the kick. You didn’t see the emotion expressed in the moment and it surely wasn’t the only time a Mariner has expressed such feelings this season. A punching bag, after all, was installed in the space behind the dugout in recent years.

It can’t happen? It does and it did. And as unfortunate as the Kelenic incident is, the result aside, Seattle Mariners Hall of Famer Dan Wilson on the Mariners Radio Pregame Roundtable Thursday morning understands why.

“I don’t think you don’t put on a Major League uniform and not do something like that,” he said. “I mean, that’s the reason, part of the reason, we get here is because we’re competitive, we want to win, we want to win every time we go up against somebody else.

“To me, that was one of the best at-bats I’ve seen all season. And he ended up striking out on a curveball on the outside corner, and I can completely understand the emotion of that moment for him putting together such a great at-bat, deserving a better fate and not getting it. And then just being frustrated with that, and then taking that energy into the dugout. And we’ve all been there as players, we’ve all been there as competitors.”

That frustration is most often hidden from the viewers. Players scream into their gloves, run down the dugout steps to the tunnels behind the batting cages to let it out. Every now and then the sounds of bat meeting concrete can be heard coming from the tunnels. Sometimes there is evidence the bat rack took some punishment or a broken batting helmet seen in a trash can. They care. They are invested. More than you know.

Even long time broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith had his eyes opened by what he heard from Kelenic.

“It taught me the lesson that we can sit up here and watch the game and talk about the process and talk about swinging at good pitches and not swinging at bad pitches. It was one of his best at-bats of the year,” Goldsmith said. “And it was easy for me to sit up here and say that and basically infer that Jarred Kelenic should feel really good about himself right now. He should feel really good that representing the tying run in the ninth inning, he put up an incredible AB that resulted in an out. But an incredible AB that nevertheless because that’s how this game works. And he should feel good about himself.

“But what it taught me seeing what he did and hearing him talk today after the fact is that if you’re that guy, and you’re in that box, and you’ve grown up winning, and winning and winning every day and winning all the time, when you fail like that, even if it is against a guy blowing 104 and one of the game’s best ninth-inning closers, it still feels awful. Like, it felt awful for Jarred Kelenic. He felt like he let his team down then and now he feels like that 100 times more. Just a lot of emotion. With all that. And I understand that better now seeing how this is all played out.”

To his credit, by all accounts Kelenic has controlled his emotions on the field much better than he has in the past. Working with a mental skills coach was a large part of his offseason overhaul. Being around him in the clubhouse day in and day out you can see the change. But not seeing that might keep the outbursts of anger seen in his first two years in the big leagues top of mind. Wilson, who as a special assistant in player development has spent much time with Kelenic throughout his time in the Mariners organization – most notably at the alternate site in Tacoma in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season – hopes that image does not linger.

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“I think he’s so emotional about it is because he’s taken so many strides, he has matured so much,” he said. “And I think he came in to spring training this year, in a much different mental place. I think he has handled that part of the game so well this year. He’s matured a lot. But again, to Aaron’s point, like it was just that at-bat at that moment, he had a chance, you know, to do something to tie the game, get it close. And it was a great at-bat, a phenomenal at-bat. And it was just the time and place. And that’s not him. And I hope he does not get labeled that because he has made a lot of strides in that area.”

That will be up to Kelenic.

As with most unfortunate episodes, this should be a learning experience. He had already taken steps in the right direction with his offseason acknowledgment that it was an area he needed to work on and by actually doing the work. The emotions are never going to be turned off completely and with a player like Kelenic, despite what happened here, ultimately you don’t want to see that. It is his competitiveness that has pushed so many long singles into doubles, put him in scoring position with stolen bases, taking big blows diving for balls in the outfield or stands. That’s energy any team would want.

Had he been veering away from the right balance, this is a wakeup call. A painful lesson for a young player, but by what we saw Thursday morning, a reminder of why he plays.

It has always struck me that Kelenic, for all the early brash talk and some perhaps early selfish at-bats, to me the impression I have always been left with him is he wants to be part of a team. That is as big an attraction to the sport he plays as anything. No doubt he has been reminded of that.

Bob’s Seattle Mariners Breakdown: Trade deadline approaching, Kelenic’s injury

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