The scene at Safeco Field on Thursday night couldn't have played out any better for rookie third baseman Justin Leone. With the Mariners down to Cleveland 1-0 in the seventh inning, Leone, just of the new faces in the M's lineup, stepped to the plate with two outs and Miguel Olivo at first base.
When opportunity knocked, Leone answered, hammering a Jake Westbrook fastball 437 feet off the façade of the upper deck in left field to give Joel Pineiro and the Mariners a 2-1 lead.
Eddie Guardado sealed the deal in the ninth inning, giving Pineiro the win and preserving the hero status for the 27-year-old Leone, whose long homer helped end Seattle's losing streak at nine games.
A 13th-round draft selection in 1999 from Las Vegas, Leone had a breakthrough season in 2003 at Double-A San Antonio when he was the Mariners Minor League Player of the Year. He hit .288 with 21 homers and 92 RBI in 135 games.
After struggling to make a positive impression on the M's during spring training this year, going hitless during his time up in big league camp, Leone rebounded to have a terrific first half of the season at Triple-A with Tacoma. He hit 21 homers and drove in 51 runs with the Rainiers, earning a promotion on July 1 along with teammate Travis Blackley.
When Seattle made the difficult decision to cut ties with John Olerud on Thursday, designating the first baseman for assignment, the move opened the door for Leone to take over as the every day third baseman. Scott Spiezio, who's been at the hot corner all season long, figures to shift over to become the team's primary first baseman while Bucky Jacobsen shares the DH duties with Edgar Martinez.
"There's no question that this move is to give us a better chance to look at Leone," manager Bob Melvin said in Thursday's Seattle P-I. "When we signed Spiezio (last winter), it was with the idea that he could move to first base next year if Ole wasn't going to be here.
"Well, we've moved up the schedule. This move was much more about Leo."
Leone is off to a smashing start with five hits in his first 15 at bats and a game-winning homer already on his major league resume.
Stay tuned Friday as the next generation of Mariners baseball continues to be on display. Blackley will take the mound tonight for his third-career start. Leone will be back at the hot corner. Bucky Jacobsen will be in the starting lineup, getting his first major league at bats. And George Sherrill will again be available as a tough lefty in the bullpen.
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