SEATTLE -- For the record, Lloyd McClendon doesn't know if Dustin Ackley is more confident now than earlier this season.
But the Mariners manager does have a new nickname that reflects his stoic left fielder's barely-groomed black beard and North Carolina upbringing.
"I understand your question, but the 'Mountain Man' is a hard guy to read," McClendon said earlier this week. "Heck, he looks at me sometimes, I think he's looking right through me."
More clear is Ackley's penchant for finding his rhythm at the plate as the season chugs along.
This is the second consecutive year Ackley is quietly doing his Jekyll and Hyde routine, hitting at a high clip after a prolonged first-half slump nearly derailed his season before the All-Star break.
In 2013, Ackley's struggles mandated a demotion to Triple-A. This year, it led to a swing change.
"I think my swing over those early months wasn't where it needed to be," Ackley said of his slow start to the year. "It wasn't that I wasn't looking for fastballs. It was that I was looking for them, but I wasn't hitting them and my swing wasn't in position to do that."
Ask Ackley, and he'll tell you the turnaround was about improving his mechanics more than changing his approach. He'll tell you it was about being selectively aggressive, about not missing pitches when he gets into hitters' counts -- 2-0, 2-1 -- about being able to hit the ball to all fields and feeling comfortable with two strikes.
If that sounds comprehensive, that's because it is. Ackley is working with hitting coach Howard Johnson to address what some perceive as a weakness -- hitting pitches on the outer half of the plate.
"Once I started tinkering with some stuff and kind of just figuring out how to drive the ball the other way and staying on pitches, it all seemed to work out better and I was able to compete," Ackley said.
It's also helping Ackley turn on pitches, as evidenced last weekend by his three-run homer that curled around Fenway Park's "Pesky Pole" in a 7-3 win over the Red Sox.
"I've been pitched in a lot here the past couple weeks," he said. "It's one of those things where the better your swing is the other way, the better you're going to be pulling the ball."
After a three-game stint as the leadoff hitter in late July, Ackley was dropped to the No. 2 spot in the lineup when the Mariners traded for leadoff-hitting center fielder Austin Jackson.
Since the move, Seattle is 16-8 in August and averaging close to five runs per game, which bodes well for a club that owns a 55-11 record when it scores four or more. Ackley this month has driven 19 of his career-high 55 RBIs. Since July 1, a day he entered with a .214 batting average, he is hitting .313 with 14 doubles, a triple, five home runs, 28 RBIs and a .486 slugging percentage.
Even after dropping two of three games to Texas earlier this week, the Mariners, at 72-60, entered Thursday with a half-game lead over the Detroit Tigers for the second American League Wild Card spot with 30 games left in the regular season. With the Tigers' win over the Yankees, the two clubs are now tied for the second Wild Card spot going into Friday.
They began Thursday seven games behind the AL-West leading Angels and six back of the Athletics. After a weekend series against the Nationals to close out August, the Mariners and A's open a three-games series Monday at O.co Coliseum.
Seattle has six September matchups with Oakland and seven with Anaheim, including a three-game series against the Angels at Safeco Field to close out the season.
Ackley said the Mariners are still aiming for the division title.
"It's definitely not out of the question. I think if we continue to play how we've been playing, who knows what could happen," Ackley said. "Teams get on rough stretches, and if we got on a good one, who knows where we could be."
The 26-year-old's quiet confidence hasn't gone unnoticed.
"You can tell by the way he plays the game. He's a guy that comes here early, works hard and just goes about his business," said teammate Robinson Cano. "He really cares about the game."
Adam Lewis is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less