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When he was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma in April to sort out one of the worst stretches of his MLB career, Mallex Smith hadn’t lost his confidence, but he knew he had work to do.
“I’m not coming down here to go through the motions,” Smith said then. “At the end of the day, you have to perform. I’m not down here on assignment, I got optioned. So, ultimately, I’m a minor-leaguer.
“Just like every other minor-leaguer, I’ve got to put in the necessary effort and earn my right to be back in the major leagues. That’s what I’m focusing on right now.”
Smith worked to find his swing rhythm with the Rainiers. He worked on becoming a better center fielder with former Seattle Mariners All-Star Mike Cameron. Finally, after nearly three weeks in the minors, Smith returned to the Mariners on May 16.
He was batting just .165 when he left Seattle, and went hitless in his final 24 at-bats. Since his return, Smith has slashed at .273/.333/.398 rate, going 24-for-88 with three doubles, a triple, two homers and 11 RBIs.
“I’m just trying to reestablish my approach day in and day out, use the whole field, and just simplify everything,” Smith said recently. “Don’t try to do too much when I’m at the plate, and be a spark for the team.”
He’s done that in more ways than one.
Smith has hit safely in 16 of the 22 games he’s played in, reached base safely in 18 of those, and had an active 10-game hitting streak entering Wednesday night’s game in Minnesota.
His defense has come around, too. Before his Triple-A stint, Smith committed two errors, and misjudged some other plays in center field. He committed another error in his first game back with the Mariners, but has played clean defense every game since, and added a few highlight-reel catches.
“You can see he feels better about himself, and he should,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said recently. “He’s put a lot of work in, he’s starting to get some results, and we’re starting to see the player we know he is.”
Smith said he feels more like himself — confident in his glove, his bat and his ability. And he looks more like the player that led the American League in triples a season ago, and finished with a .296/.367/.406 slash line.
“If you continue to prepare, and stick with the things you know you should be doing, things will work out,” Smith said. “Like I was saying earlier in the year, this is a long season. It’s not a good thing to be too down on yourself when you’re doing bad.
“Just stick with your process, and things will fall where they may if you continue to put the work in.”
The Mariners have seen even more of an uptick in Smith’s production since returning from a road trip in Oakland at the end of May. Smith played just one game in that three-game series against the A’s, but was sparked by a conversation he had with Rickey Henderson, widely considered the best leadoff hitter and base-stealer in MLB history.
“The experience itself was beautiful,” Smith said. “I was just really appreciative of him even sitting down and wanting to talk to me. There’s a lot of people that want to meet him and talk to him and get words of wisdom from him. … After he talked to me, I was just like, ‘Well, it’s time for me to try to get like Rickey Henderson.’ ”
In the next game he played, Smith stole four bases — including home plate — to help push the Mariners to a win. He’s stolen nine bases since returning from Tacoma, and has 17 this season in 49 games, trailing only Kansas City’s Adalberto Mondesi (25 in 65 games) for the MLB lead.
“It’s fun, because it’s like a thrill,” Smith said. “It’s a skill in itself to kind of get the reads, but to have the speed to execute what you see, that’s fun. Because everybody can’t do that.”
Right-handed reliever Gerson Bautista was slated to make his first career start Wednesday night in Minnesota, marking the fourth time this season the Mariners have used an opener. He is the 11th different starting pitcher to appear for Seattle this season.
Bautista, who flashed a triple-digit fastball during a rehab assignment with Tacoma in recent weeks, compiled a 9.00 ERA in his first two relief appearances with Seattle this season, covering two innings.
He was scheduled to be followed by left-hander Tommy Milone.
Austin Adams had made two of Seattle’s three opener appearances before Wednesday, but was used in relief in Tuesday night’s loss to the Twins.
LONG IN LEFT
Rookie Shed Long, who primarily played at second base while Dee Gordon was on the 10-day injured list, was listed as the starter in left field for Wednesday’s game, marking his first appearance there in his MLB career.
“I think we identified that early in spring training that we would move him around, some at third base, second base, put him in left field,” Servais told reporters in Minnesota on Wednesday. “The more versatility the better.”
Long committed one error in 152 innings across 17 games at second base with Gordon out, and has shown consistent growth at the position, despite originally being signed as a catcher. He made nine error-free starts in left for the Rainiers before his most recent call-up, and has also played second and third in the minors this season.
CRAWFORD ON TRACK
Shortstop J.P. Crawford, who is on the 10-day IL with a sprained ankle, made his first rehab start with high Single-A Modesto on Tuesday night, playing seven innings at short and converting a double play. He finished 1-for-4 with a 420-foot, three-run homer.
“He texted (infield coach) Perry Hill that he hit a bomb, but more importantly, that he felt good, and was moving around fine with no limitations,” Servais said.
Barring any setbacks, Servais said Crawford is projected to rejoin the Mariners this weekend in Oakland, possibly for Friday’s series opener.