SEATTLE When Cole Gillespie signed a minor-league free-agent contract with Seattle in January, he probably didn't envision hitting cleanup for the Mariners against the New York Yankees at Safeco Field in a few months.
But there was Gillespie, batting in the four-hole as the Yankees beat Seattle 3-2 Tuesday night.
Hitting cleanup for the first time in his brief major-league career, the former West Linn High and Oregon State standout singled to drive in the game's first run in the first inning, then walked in the fourth before being removed as a pinch hitter.
Gillespie entered Wednesday night's game against the Yankees batting .327. Since May 31, the 6-2, 200-pound corner outfielder was hitting at a .435 clip, with four multi-hit games, two doubles, a home run and four RBIs.
"I'm having a blast," said Gillespie, who turns 30 on June 20. "I've been waiting for my opportunity. To get some at-bats consistently is always a good thing. Ask any hitter. The more ABs you get consistently, you're going to start feeling their rhythm at the plate. I'm comfortable with where I'm at, and I hope I continue to swing the bat."
Gillespie was batting .362 with five home runs in 16 games for Triple-A Tacoma when he was called up on April 24. At first, he saw duty only in spots, mostly against left-handed pitching. Over the last two weeks, he has gained the trust of manager Lloyd McClendon.
"Cole has done a nice job for us," McClendon said. "He has gotten an opportunity to produce, and he has produced. You do that, it dictates more playing time. He has gotten some big hits. Hopefully he will continue at that pace."
Gillespie, the Pac-10 player of the year while leading Oregon State to the College World Series title in 2006, took only four years to get into his first major-league game with Arizona in 2010. Though he has hit well at every minor-league stop, he had never played enough in the big leagues to find a rhythm, batting below .200 in 78 games with the Diamondbacks, Cubs and Giants over the last four years.
Despite going 9 for 23 with the Mariners in spring training, Gillespie was optioned to Tacoma. After the sizzling start with the Rainiers, he has followed suit in Seattle. What's made the difference this time?
"Honestly, I think it is just getting the at-bats," Gillespie said. "Every shot I've had (in the majors), I get some at-bats at times, then I don't. It's a tough role to be in.
"Sometimes, that's just the way it goes. The main thing is to be ready when your name is called. Fortunately, I've been able to get some at-bats here. Lately, it's been pretty much every day."
Gillespie's biggest shortcoming in the eyes of major-league decision-makers is lack of home-run power. He has never hit more than 14 round-trippers in a season.
"When it's a corner outfielder, they'd like to see someone who hits for a little more power," Gillespie acknowledged. "My game is hitting the ball in the gap -- doubles, getting on base, scoring runs. I don't know if (home-run prowess) has been the knock on me, but that's the kind of player I am. I'm not going to try to change."
Gillespie is an average outfielder defensively, but has excellent speed and can run the bases. And he can hit.
"Cole has a really good, fine-tuned swing," catcher Mike Zunino said. "He doesn't try to do too much. He uses the whole field. He is always on balance. He shows patience up there.
"He has put himself in a good spot to succeed. It speaks to how hard he's worked to get there."
The last two games, McClendon has used Gillespie in the designated hitter role -- the first time he filled that spot in the majors.
"I've never felt comfortable as a DH in the minors," he said. "Most of the time they don't have batting tunnels to stay loose throughout games. But you do at the big-league level, so it's not an excuse at all."
As Gillespie has bounced back and forth between the majors and minors over the past four years, he never lost faith in his abilities.
"I never doubted myself, but the tough part is sticking around," he said. "You have to produce when you're up there. Sometimes you get longer opportunities. Some of it, you can't control."
Gillespie said he was "ecstatic" when he made the decision to sign with the Mariners.
"The Giants were my team growing up, but the Mariners were my second team," he said. "I'm a Northwest kid, with family and friends nearby. It was a good fit for me. There were some other options, but I felt like this was a good opportunity I wasn't going to pass on."
Gillespie rents a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Seattle so his father, Brad, and brother Brett can stay with him when they're in town. Cole and Brett own a home together in San Diego.
The Yankees series has been an opportunity to reconnect with former Oregon State teammate Jacoby Ellsbury.
"We roomed together at Oregon State, and we're still pretty close," Gillespie said. Before Tuesday's game, "I told him to play me a little bit deeper because I was hitting in the four-hole -- respect the power."
Gillespie has gotten to know another former Beaver, Stephen Romero, who is both a teammate and competitor for playing time in the Seattle outfield. Romero played at Oregon State in 2009 and '10, when Gillespie was already in pro baseball.
"I've really gotten to know Stefen for the first time at spring training," Gillespie said. "He has a great attitude. I've really enjoyed getting to know him and play with him."
Romero learned plenty about Gillespie during the recruiting process.
"Cole was one of the centerpieces of the College World Series footage coach (Pat) Casey and (then assistant coach) Marty Lees showed us," said Romero, a third baseman at OSU. "And then when I was playing there, Cole and (Cubs second baseman) Darwin Barney would come and hit with us and give a few pointers during the winters.
"It's been fun to get to know him, and surreal that we wind up playing together in the outfield here. We're here to push each other. It makes each of us a better player. We're really competitive like that. It's a motivational thing. Right now, he's playing well, earning the right to be in the lineup every day."
Gillespie said he closely follows Oregon State baseball.
"Andy Jenkins (OSU's third base coach and Gillespie's former teammate) is one of my best buddies," Gillespie said. "I talked to Coach Case a couple of days ago, and he said he'd be up for a game this homestand. I wish (the Beavers) were still playing. It's tough to go out (of the NCAA playoffs) as the No. 1 seed, but they still had a great season."
Gillespie said he had a good feeling about the Mariners during spring training. They entered Wednesday play 34-30 and only 4 1/2 games behind American League West leader Oakland.
"We have the makings of a good ball club here," he said. "We have a chance to make it to the postseason. The main thing I'm going to do is contribute in any way I can and help the team win."