BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Matt Tuiasosopo leans back, resting his gloved left hand on his leg and propping his right hand on his hip. As the pitcher begins the windup, the shortstop starts to bend down, his glove drops between his legs and he takes a few steps toward the plate.
Then he waits.
The pitch is lined back up the middle, but Tuiasosopo is ready. He dives to the left and swallows the ball. He doesn't force the throw to first, but saves a run.
Take away the setting, a cool Friday night at Bakersfield's 65-year-old ballpark, and the shortstop who stands regally at his post conjures images of Alex Rodriguez, or at least the next coming of him.
At 19, the 6-foot-2 shortstop for Inland Empire, the Mariners' Class A affiliate, is still growing into his profession and position.
"I've always loved A-Rod," said Tuiasosopo, who recently switched his jersey to No. 3, the number Rodriguez wore in Seattle. "I've always watched A-Rod, even though he's not there anymore. When I was in Little League, I always walked around and tried to be like him."
Much to the chagrin of Washington football fans, Tuiasosopo followed Rodriguez rather than his brother Marques. He became a shortstop, not a quarterback. And in his two years he Mariners' organization, he has never asked "what if?"
What if he took the football scholarship to Washington? What if he followed his brothers' footsteps?
It is another what-if that Tuiasosopo listens to. Another what-if that assures him he made the right decision.
"What if I wasn't playing baseball?"
So when he strikes out, he doesn't throw a bat or a fit. When he's careless on a routine grounder, he doesn't drop his head.
"I'm just trying to get better each day and I think I have," Tuiasosopo said.
In just his second season of professional baseball, Tuiasosopo is exactly where he expected to be coming out of Woodinville High.
"There are some things that you can teach and there are some things that you can't," 66ers manager Gary Thurman said. "Instincts are something you can't teach, and that's the one thing that's going to make him get to the big leagues quicker than somebody else with the same tools but no instincts."
With slick-fielding 24-year-old Yuniesky Betancourt the Mariners' shortstop of the future, the 210-pound Tuiasosopo is likely to eventually move to third base or the outfield.
"I definitely want to be at shortstop," Tuiasosopo said. " ... I've got to take care of my business and, obviously, if I don't, there's a chance I'll probably get moved. I'm fine with that, but right now, I want to be there."
Through 21 games, Tuiasosopo was second on the team in batting at .325, with five doubles and 14 runs batted in. Not so impressive were his nine errors and 27 strikeouts in 83 at-bats.
"It's just bad recognition at the plate, swinging at balls in the dirt," he said.
For Tuiasosopo, though, every day is the continuation of his dream.
"I love coming to the ballpark every day and playing baseball," he said. "It's like living a kid's little dream. I get to go to the ballpark every day as a job. I still love UW and all my boys back there, but I'm excited with the choices I've made."