June 2011

Injuries to Olivo, Gimenez cause catching shortage

Chris Gimenez makes the tag on Jason Heyward in the ninth inning Tuesday despite playing with a strained oblique muscle that will require an MRI test Wednesday. (Elaine Thompson/AP photo)

Injuries have not been a major problem for the Mariners so far this season, but that may have changed in a hurry Tuesday night when the club’s short-handed catching situation just got a whole lot shorter with a day game looming Wednesday.

The one significant injury during this season has been the early loss of backup catcher Adam Moore to a season-ending knee problem.

Now, in the space of one game, the Mariners saw Miguel Olivo pulled with what was called a cramp in the hamstring area of his right leg, then backup Chris Gimenez forced to gut his way through the final four innings with a strained oblique muscle in his side.

Gimenez was sore enough that he could only attempt to bunt the ball in an eyebrow-raising at-bat in the seventh, then grimaced noticably after making a sweeping tag at the plate in the ninth when Ichiro Suzuki threw out Jason Heyward at the plate.

Now the Mariners are faced with some tough decisions to bandage things together in time for Wednesday’s 12:40 p.m. finale with the Braves. They were huddled in manager Eric Wedge’s office last last night trying to come up with answers. Miguel Olivo came out of the training room at one point to talk to Wedge, said he felt OK, but then didn’t appear too happy as he left the room after talking to the skipper.

I had to hustle back up to the press box to file my stories shortly thereafter, but ESPN-710’s Shannon Drayer reported that Gimenez eventually came out of the training room and said he’d need an MRI on Wednesday and wouldn’t be available for the afternoon game.

The Mariners don’t have a ton of options at the position waiting in Triple-A. Veteran Josh Bard is the obvious choice, but he’s missed the past three games with a toe injury. The other Tacoma catcher is Jose Yepez, a 30-year-old Venezuelan who had just one game above Double-A prior to this season.

Yepez went 2-for-3 to raise his average to .276 on Tuesday, but the Rainiers are playing in Las Vegas and he’ll need to be hustled up to Seattle if he’s needed by the 12:40 p.m. start time Wednesday when Felix Hernandez will take the hill.

Should make for an interesting day as the Mariners try to patch things together, particularly if Olivo isn’t able to go.

Wedge frustrated after offense struggles again

Ichiro Suzuki swings and misses on a third strike in the first inning of Monday's 3-1 loss to the Braves. (Elaine Thompson/AP photo)

Mariners manager Eric Wedge sounded at the end of his rope after tonight’s 3-1 loss to the Braves, with another tough night at the plate leaving exasperation again following another wasted outing from starter Erik Bedard.

Much like Doug Fister, Bedard is showing little for his efforts as he fell to 4-6 despite a 3.00 ERA and a run of starts that has been as good as any in baseball over his last two months.

But with just five hits and one run from the offense, the Mariners fell into a familiar rut. And one thing we’ve learned about Wedge, he doesn’t like seeing his team spin its wheels in the same rut for very long. The last time he spoke out sharply was in Chicago after a couple one-run outings when he didn’t like the approaches at the plate.

Apparently Monday’s approach didn’t sit well either.

“We had a very poor night offensively,” Wedge said afterward. “We’ve had some tough nights this year offensively, but tonight was particularly disappointing. We gave away some ABs, we didn’t have people step up when they needed to step up. We had some opportunities.

“Bedard went out and pitched another fantastic ballgame. But these guys are going to have to find a way to get tougher up there, start squaring up some fastballs. They can’t feel sorry for themelves, can’t get down on themselves. The only way you’re going to get better is fight through it, be more aggressive and be tougher. Otherwise this game will beat the hell out of you.”

It’s easy to wonder how long Wedge will keep trying to squeeze something out of Chone Figgins, who went 0-for-3 while getting a spot start at third and now is 0-for-16 since Dustin Ackley’s arrival to drop his already dismal average to .186.

Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez is another struggling hitter after his 0-for-3 leaft him at .197.

The Mariners got two hits from Mike Carp — a ringing double and a little nub single in front of the plate — and Ackley continued to impress with his 10th straight game reaching base. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to like in this one.

“To be a good offensive ballclub or to get out of the funk, you’ve got to go up there and be more aggressive and have that fighter’s mentality,” Wedge said. “It’s a controlled aggressiveness, but you’ve got to stick your nose in there. You can’t get caught up about what type of game we’re in, what the guy did ahead of you or what you did your last at-bat. You have to keep the mind in the now and get to it.”

Here’s the key with Wedge. He’ll be patient with players, to a point. But when he keeps seeing the same unproductive strategy repeated over and over, that’s when he draws the line.

“You’ve got to stay positive, stay optimistic, but you also have to be realistic about what the hell you’ve seen out there,” he said. “What I don’t want to see, and the biggest disappointment for me, is when I see certain individuals going up there doing the same thing time and time again, expecting different results. I mean, that’s ridiculous.

“So like I’ve said before, I do believe we’re going to get better. I do believe we’ll be a better offensive club. But they have to believe it collectively and individually within themseves. We’re about a couple games from halfway through the season. So there’s a longway to go. But having said that, there has to be a sense of urgency there, too. That’s a fine line, but that’s what this game is all about.”

Mariners will monitor Pineda, but no limit planned

Michael Pineda is on pace for 200 innings this rookie season. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Mariners manager Eric Wedge said Sunday that he and pitching coach Carl Willis are keeping an eye on rookie Michael Pineda, who is currently on pace to pitch 200 2/3 innings this rookie season.

The Mariners have mapped out a couple scenarios for the remaining three months of the season with their entire five-man rotation, which is the only starting group that has not missed a game yet this year. Wedge wasn’t in the mood to share the specifics of those possible scenarios, but indicated the team would primarily just keep the five starters in the same rotation and monitor innings and tough situations as they arise.

“Carl has played it out. We’ve done a couple different scenario with guys at certain junctures,” Wedge said. “I think we’ll just stay on line with everything. Then as we work the off days, guys will just get extra days. We may alter that as need be, but that’s our thought process right now.”

As of Sunday afternoon, Felix Hernandez ranks fifth among American League starters with 121 1/3 innings. Jason Vargas is 14th at 104 1/3. Doug Fister, who pitches Sunday night, is tied for 17th at 102 1/3 innings. Pineda is tied for 28th at 95 2/3 innings, while Erik Bedard is 48th with 83 innings.

As for plans for the 22-year-old Pineda specifically?

“We’ve mapped that out in several different ways,” said Wedge. “Nothing I’m going to throw out to you. But when I said [possibly skipping starts at] different junctures, he’s one of the guys I’m talking about. And not just him. A few of these other guys, if we stay on this course.

“Michael sticks out, being his first full season and what not, but afew of these other guys … Bedard has been awhile since he’s done it. Obviously Vargas built up last year, but he’s piling up innings. Fister will be throwing longer than he ever has. We’ve played it out and I think we’ll be able to manage it

“If it ges to point where it’s a little tight at the end, that’ll be a good thing and will be for good reasons. But we’ve been trying to manage his game-to-game pitch count and inning-to-inning pitch count.”

Wedge feels the big challenge isn’t the total number of innings, but the number of high-pressure or longer innings.

“Where you really extend yourself is when you have to push through an inning and get deep into an inning, that’s when the fatigue sets in,” he said. “You’re reaching back and that’s when you have to be careful. I think we’ve been managing pretty well to this point and we just need to stay on top of it.”

Bedard threw just 81 innings in 2008, 83 innings in ’09 and 11 Minor League rehab innings last season due to shoulder problems. He’already at 83 this year going into his 15th start of the season on Monday night against the Braves.

“I think he’s strong, but we still have to keep an eye on him,” said Wedge. “We have to keep an eye on everybody. Felix is in a whole different league, obviously, but even with Felix we still keep an eye on him and push and pull and do what we have to do.

“With Bedard, he’s done a good job. His routine has been great, he’s stayed strong. We’ll keep an eye on him as well, but no red flags.”

Ackley to bat seventh in his debut

The big news is out. Dustin Ackley will bat seventh and play second base tonight in his Major League debut against the Phillies.

Manager Eric Wedge will slide the rookie into a lower spot in the lineup, as expected, as he faces Roy Oswalt right out of the gate.

Wedge kept Adam Kennedy in the lineup by putting him at designated hitter, which means no Mike Carp or Jack Cust tonight. Carlos Peguero is in left field and batting fifth.

This is a different lineup and not just because of Ackley’s presence. Justin Smoak will bat cleanup for the first time and Franklin Gutierrez is hitting ninth.

And, yes, Chone Figgins — who actually has been hitting better recently — remains in the lineup at third base. Figgins has hit .290 with five walks over hsi past 10 games with a .389 on-base percentage.

Ackley will be made available to the media at 3:25 p.m. prior to batting practice, so we’ll update with his thoughts as well as Wedge’s plans for him on Mariners.com later this afternoon.

Here’s the full Mariner lineup:

51  Ichiro Suzuki (L)     RF
26  Brendan Ryan          SS
4  Adam Kennedy (L)      DH
17  Justin Smoak (S)      1B
8  Carlos Peguero (L)    LF
30  Miguel Olivo          C
13  Dustin Ackley (L)     2B
9  Chone Figgins (S)     3B
21  Franklin Gutierrez    CF

36  Michael Pineda        RHP

Kennedy gets in a little early work at third

Not surprising, but interesting  nonetheless, veteran infielder Adam Kennedy was out early taking some ground balls at third base from infield coach Robby Thompson.

No, that doesn’t guarantee Dustin Ackley will be here today or tomorrow. But it’s inevitable that Ackley will be arriving soon from Tacoma and when he does, he’ll be playing the bulk of time at second base.

So it would behoove the Mariners to find a spot for Kennedy, who is hitting a team-leading .275 and providing one of the veteran bats Eric Wedge values in the middle of his lineup.

Kennedy played 82 games at third for Oakland in ’09 and eight games there last year for the Nationals, so it’s not totally foreign to him. He told me in Spring Training that third base is probably the least comfortable infield spot for him, but that doesn’t mean he can’t handle it. He’s just played more second and first base in his career.

Kennedy is a pro and no doubt will fill whatever role keeps him in the lineup.

And, no, I don’t think this spells the end of Chone Figgins in Seattle. He still has two years and $18 million on his contract after this season. The Mariners aren’t likely to just jettison him for nothing, no matter who many fans think that would be smart.

They might try to shop him, but they’d be selling low and not likely to recoup what they’d like. More likely, they’ll move veteran shortstop Jack Wilson in the coming days as he’ll be easier to move in the final year of a $5 million deal.

Wilson is in the lineup today, not surprising if the Mariners want to showcase him a little. It’s an interesting lineup today with rookie Carlos Peguero batting cleanup and playing DH. Mike Carp is in left field, with Jack Cust sitting again.

Here’s the final lineup for tonight’s 7:10 p.m. start against the Angels:

51  Ichiro Suzuki (L)     RF
26  Brendan Ryan          SS
17  Justin Smoak (S)      1B
8  Carlos Peguero (L)    DH
30  Miguel Olivo          C
20  Mike Carp (L)         LF
21  Franklin Gutierrez    CF
9  Chone Figgins (S)     3B
2  Jack Wilson           2B
45  Erik Bedard           LHP

Mariners set makeup dates with Indians

The Mariners and Indians have rescheduled two games that were rained out in Cleveland on May 14-15, with the M’s now needing to make an extra trip into Ohio in September to pull it off.

One game will be made up Tuesday, Aug. 23 as part of a day-night doubleheader during the Mariners’ return trip to Progressive Field. They were already slated to make their second trip to Cleveland with a three-game set on Aug. 22-24, so now will make that four games in three days.

They’ll now play two in the middle day of that series, with a 10:05 a.m. PT game on Aug. 23, followed by the regularly scheduled 4:05 p.m. nightcap.

The second postponed game will be made up Monday, Sept. 19 at 1:05 p.m. PT on what had been a mutual off day for the two teams in the closing weeks of the season. The Mariners will now have only one off day in September and will finish the season with 33 games in 34 days.

The Mariners will now play at home on Sunday, Sept. 18 against Texas, travel to Cleveland on Sept. 19 and then open a three-game set in Minnesota on Sept. 20.

Both makeup games will be televised by Root Sports and carried on ESPN-710 and the Mariners radio network.

Wedge gives slumping Ichiro a rare day off

Eric Wedge hasn’t hesitated to give players days off when they’ve struggled this season and that trend continued Friday when the Mariners skipper sat down Ichiro Suzuki, who has been fighting a lengthy batting slump.

Ichiro’s string of consecutive starts will end at 255 when the Mariners take on the Tigers at 4:05 p.m. PT at Comerica Park, with Carlos Peguero getting the nod in right field and Chone Figgins taking the leadoff duties in the batting order.

Ichiro has hit just 13-for-87 since May 19 as his batting average has tumbled to .252, the lowest it’s ever been at this point in the season during his 11 years in the Major Leagues.

We’ll meet with Wedge about 2:20 p.m. PT to hear his thoughts. Not sure if Ichiro will make himself available as well. He normally doesn’t speak with the media before games, but maybe today will be different.

Ichiro has played in 1,651 of the 1,683 possible games in his Mariners career, starting 1,635 of those. His 255 consecutive starts streak is the third most in Mariners history and the second-longest active streak in the Major Leagues behind the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp (268).

The last time he didn’t start was Aug. 31, 2009 against the Angels when he was having hamstring problems.

Interesting decision by Wedge, but an understandable one given the way Ichiro has looked at the plate recently. The 37-year-old right fielder has reached 200 hits in each of his first 10 seasons in Seattle, but currently is on pace for just 170 this year with 66 hits through 63 games.

 Wedge went with two rookies in the outfield, with Greg Halman starting in left field and Peguero in right. Halman is 7-for-11 (.636) since being promoted from Triple-A last week, while Peguero is batting .221 with four home runs at 12 RBIs in 77 at-bats.

Ichiro’s on-base percentage of .306 is well below his career average of .376 and he’s yet to hit a home run, the longest streak without a long ball to open a season since he came to the U.S. in 2001.

Here’s today’s full lineup:

9  Chone Figgins (S)     3B
26  Brendan Ryan          SS
17  Justin Smoak (S)      1B
29  Jack Cust (L)         DH
4  Adam Kennedy (L)      2B
21  Franklin Gutierrez    CF
8  Carlos Peguero (L)    RF
56  Greg Halman           LF
5  Chris Gimenez         C
45  Erik Bedard           LHP

Here’s your first peek at the Dave Niehaus statue

Mariners broadcaster Rick Rizzs gets his first look at the statue of Dave Niehaus that is being constructed at the Rotblatt Amrany studio outside Chicago. (Photo by Greg Johns/MLB.com)

While we’re in Chicago for the White Sox series, a group from the Mariners headed to nearby Highwood, Ill., on Monday to meet with sculptor Lou Cella and see how his work was going on the Dave Niehaus statue that will be installed in Safeco Field late this season.

Turns out, Cella is well underway on the project , which is stunning. Rick Rizzs, Niehaus’ longtime broadcast partner, was blown away when he walked into the room where the sculpture is being worked on.

At this point, the statue has been done in clay. That mold will then be used to cast the bronze piece that ultimately will go into the outfield concourse in Safeco sometime in September.

I’ll have more details on all this later today on Mariners.com, but thought people would be interested in seeing how the sculpture looks at this point.

The piece has Niehaus sitting at a broadcast desk with his scorebook opened to the game of Oct. 8, 1995. You might recall that as “The Double” game by Edgar Martinez. Cella used Niehaus’ actual scorebook and the engraving is a clear reproduction of his actual notes and scoring from that memorable day.

The detail on the piece is stunning, right down to one of Niehaus’ favorite “baseball” ties. Fans will be able to sit next to Niehaus on the bench on the sculpture, as the Mariners want it to be an interactive piece given Niehaus’ open relationship with fans around the Pacific Northwest.

The Rotblatt Amrany studio outside Chicago has done dozens of sports sculptures, including Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Vince Lombardi and on and on. Just walking around their studio was a treat, but the Niehaus piece obviously was the treasure.

We’ll have more later, but let me know what you think.

Zduriencik explains drafting another pitcher

Virginia's Danny Hultzen was selected by the Mariners with the second pick in Monday's first round. (Photo courtesy of Jim Daves/Virginia Athletic Department)

Count me among the surprised when Seattle tabbed Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen with the second pick in Monday’s baseball draft.

Hultzen had been mentioned everywhere as a top-five talent and a rising draft pick as one of the premier college pitchers in the country, but I fell into the thinking that the Mariners would opt for offense, given the chance to pick any position player they wanted after the Pirates took UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole.

Instead, GM Jack Zduriencik and scouting director Tom McNamara stuck to their guns, selecting the guy they felt had the most talent instead of just taking the best possible hitter, even for a franchise that has drafted pitchers with their top pick five of the past six years.

It’s the smart way to approach a baseball draft, even if frustrating for fans who then sat through a lifeless 3-1 loss to the White Sox later Monday evening when another strong Michael Pineda start went for naught.

Zduriencik and McNamara know the best way to get better is to get the best possible talent available. If that’s pitching for an already pitching-strong Major League club, so be it. If you have great pitching, you can always deal it. The key is to have something great.

When you’ve got the No. 2 pick, you need to land the biggest stud possible. Time will tell, but the Mariners felt better about Hultzen’s chances there than anyone else.

They won’t talk about guys they didn’t pick, but if Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon — who I thought would be the pick — was a sure thing in their minds, they’d have nabbed him. If they thought Bubba Starling was going to be the next superstar outfielder — and that they could sign him instead of watching him go play football at Nebraska — they’d have gone that route.

Instead, they went with Hultzen, who by all accounts is an intelligent, motivated, well-grounded 21-year-old with a talented arm and enough athleticism to hit .320 in college as a designated hitter when he’s not pitching for top-ranked Virginia.

I’m in Chicago with the Mariners on their current road trip, but MLB.com associate reporter Taylor Soper was at the Zduriencik press conference in Seattle and sent along this quote about his thoughts on picking Hultzen instead of Rendon.

“We can’t comment on a player that’s under the control of somebody else,” he said. “But I can tell you there were several players we could have taken. We would have been happy with three, four, five guys at different positions. We’d love to take an outfielder, love to take a shortstop, love to take a third baseman, love to take a pitcher.

“But at the end of the day you  get one call. You get to make one decision and have to wait 60 some picks to get your second decision. So you have a choice and this is the choice we made and we think it’s a good one.”

Zdurincik noted that Safeco Field is an excellent park for pitchers, particularly left-handers, and that with Pineda, Felix Hernandez and young prospects like Taijun Walker, Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton, the Mariners are building a significant arsenal of arms.

“You’ve got to create something somewhere and pitching is a premium,” Zduriencik said. “Try to sign a really, really good pitcher on the market and if this guy is on the fast track and this is the kind of guy we think he is, it’s going to be nice to add him to this staff.”

Zduriencik also said Hultzen, as a college junior, has a chance to get to the Major Leagues in relatively short order.

“Each guy has his own time frame and you never know till they get out there, and it depends on when they sign, of course,” Zduriencik said. “But his ability and the other intangibles that he has should enable him to move fairly quick.”

So there you go. That’s the rationale. As with all draft decisions, time will tell. But rest assured, the Mariners took the player they think has the best chance to succeed at the Major League level. And if they’re right in the long run, adding a quality left-hander to the rotation is never a bad thing.

Mariners take Virginia lefty Hultzen with No. 2 pick

Given a chance to add another top arm to their already pitching-strong organization, the Mariners selected Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen with the No. 2 pick in Monday’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

Hultzen, 21, was 11-3 with a 1.57 ERA in 15 starts for Virginia. The 6-foot-3 lefty was 31-5 with a 2.18 in his three-year collegiate career.

“Danny is one of the top pitchers in the draft with tremendous athletic ability,” Mariners director of Amateur Scouting Tom McNamara said. “We look forward to having him in our organization and working his way toward being part of our Major League rotation in the near future.”

The Mariners have now selected pitchers with their first pick in five of the past six drafts.

Hultzen held opposing hitters to a .189 batting average with 17 walks and 148 strikeouts in 103 1/3 innings. He’s also a good enough athlete to have played designated hitter for top-ranked Virginia, with a .330 batting average and 25 RBIs this season.

He’s stolen 18 bases in 19 attempts during his college career.

Virginia advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals by beating East Carolina on Sunday. Hultzen is the ace of the Cavaliers’ staff as the two-time ACC Pitcher of teh Year.

Most analysts expected Seattle to opt for Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, though he’d suffered from shoulder problems this past season. The Mariners also passed on standout high school outfielder Bubba Starling, another risk given he’s signed a football scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska.

“This is completely unexpected,” Hultzen told the MLB Network. “It’s a tremendous honor though. I’m very excited for it.”

The Pirates selected UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole with the first pick. Starling wound up going fifth to Kansas City, with Rendon sixth to the Nationals.

Seattle has now had the No. 2 pick two of the last three years, having selected Dustin Ackley out of North Carolina in that spot in 2009.

Picking second doesn’t guarantee a future Major League standout, but there have been plenty to come up from that spot in recent years. From 2002-06, the players picked second were B.J. Upton, Rickie Weeks, Justin Verlander and Alex Gordon.

The more recent No. 2s haven’t yet reached the big leagues, but include highly regarded prospects like Ackley and Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas.

The Mariners had only one pick in Monday’s first round and sandwich picks. They’ll have the  second pick Tuesday (62nd overall) when the Draft resumes with rounds 2-30.