September 2013

Molina shows again why he’s one of best in the game

It’s generally not wise to try to run on Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, a five-time Gold Glove winner who gunned down two Mariners in the ninth inning Friday as St. Louis beat Seattle 2-1 in 10 innings.

Molina, 31, has the highest caught stealing percentage of any active Major League catcher at 44.6 percent and he nailed Endy Chavez and Dustin Ackley in short order as the Mariners tried to put Friday’s game in motion with the score tied at 1.

It was the first time a Cardinals catcher had thrown out two runners in the same frame since 2001 when current manager Mike Matheny pulled the feat.

Why challenge Molina? Chavez was moving in a hit-and-run situation with Michael Saunders, who had twice failed to lay down a bunt earlier in the at-bat against closer Edward Mujica.

“We’ve got a 3-2 count there, so we’re going to put Endy in motion hoping Saunders can make contact there,” Wedge said. “It looked like a breaking ball up a little bit. He’s got to put that ball in play, especially after not getting the bunt down. Still, you feel okay with Endy running. Molina did a nice job.”

As for Ackley, after the Mariners outfielder had singled in the following at-bat?

“When you’ve got two outs and a runner on first base, you can’t just sit back and wait,” said Wedge. “You have to try to make something happen. Ackley was aggressive and I thought he had a pretty good jump. But that was one of the better throws we’ve seen this year. That second one was about as good as it gets from Yadi.”

Matheny, a former catcher like Wedge, understood the Mariners’ aggressive approach, even against Molina.

“The game situation really led to that,” said Matheny. “You’ve got a 3-2 count, a guy that might be throwing something slower and he actually did and Yadi still made up for it. I’m sure that’s the same that they’re going to do with just about any catcher behind the plate.”

All goes well in Felix throwing session

ST. LOUIS – Felix Hernandez threw a flat-ground session in the outfield at Busch Stadium without problems before Friday’s series opener with the Cardinals and the Mariners will now have him throw a bullpen session Monday in Detroit as he works his way back from a minor oblique muscle strain in his left side.

Hernandez threw under the watchful eye of pitching coach Carl Willis as manager Eric Wedge was conducting his pregame media session with reporters.

“Once I talk to Carl and see how it looked today, then we’ll go from there,” Wedge said. “If it went well, then we’ll get him [throwing] off the mound and go from there. But let’s see today goes first.”

Once reports were positive, the Mariners said Hernandez could start Wednesday in Detroit if all goes well now in Monday’s bullpen workout.

Hernandez hasn’t pitched since Sept. 2 in Kansas City, when he felt some tightness in his lower back in the seventh inning of a 3-1 loss to the Royals.

He initially was scheduled to start again on Sunday, then had that delayed until Wednesday before being canceled completely after continuing to feel some stiffness in his side during a light throwing session.

The Mariners only have 15 games remaining after Friday’s series opener against the Cardinals and have been clear that they wouldn’t push Hernandez’s return unless he’s completely healthy.

The 27-year-old has thrown 194 1/3 innings to date, going 12-9 with a 3.01 ERA in 29 starts with 41 walks and 200 strikeouts. He’s pitched 200-plus innings each of the last five years and this is the fifth straight season he’s notched at least 200 strikeouts.

Going into Friday’s games, Hernandez was still tied for fourth in the American League in strikeouts and tied for sixth in innings pitched.

Felix scratched from Wednesday start vs. Astros

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Felix Hernandez has been scratched from his scheduled start Wednesday against the Astros as the Mariners ace continues to be hampered by some stiffness in his back.

Hernandez will be replaced by rookie right-hander Brandon Maurer, who started 10 games at the beginning of the season and has been working in a long-relief role recently. Maurer, 23, is 4-7 with a 6.85 ERA.

Hernandez already had his start pushed back from Sunday after being removed from his previous outing on Sept. 2 in Kansas City after 6 2/3 innings after feeling some cramping in his lower back.

After the 26-year-old felt some stiffness again while throwing a flat-ground session on Saturday, the Mariners decided to delay his next start further rather than push it at this point. The issue is not considered serious, but the club is being cautious with Hernandez already having thrown 194 1/3 innings this season in 29 starts.

Hernandez is 12-9 with a 3.01 ERA and 200 strikeouts. He is currently third in the American League in strikeouts and fourth in innings pitched.

The durable right-hander has thrown 200-plus innings each of the past five years and this is his fifth consecutive season with 200 strikeouts.

The Mariners had already decided to go to a six-man rotation over the remaining weeks of the season to reduce the work load on all their pitchers. Rookie Taijuan Walker, who will make his third Major League start in Monday night’s series opener with the Astros, will be shut down after that appearance.

Maurer was already slated to take Walker’s place in the rotation the rest of the way. The club also is going with rookie James Paxton, who made his Major League debut on Saturday, along with Hisashi Iwakuma, Joe Saunders and Erasmo Ramirez.

Hultzen sharp in simulated game Saturday

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Danny Hultzen, the Mariners top left-handed pitching prospect, threw three simulated innings prior to Saturday’s game at Safeco Field as he continued working on a revamped arm motion designed to alleviate the pressure on his left arm.

Hultzen threw only 35 2/3 innings in seven games this season while dealing with shoulder problems. But he faced teammates Abraham Almonte, Carlos Triunfel, Humberto Quintero and Henry Blanco and threw 51 pitches as general manager Jack Zduriencik, manager Eric Wedge, pitching coach Carl Willis and trainer Rick Griffin watched closely from behind the batting cage.

Hultzen, 23, threw two scoreless frames for Triple-A Tacoma on Sunday in his first live action since June and now will head to Instructional League and then Arizona Fall League to continue working his way back.

“I’m just glad to be pitching again,” said the 2011 first-round Draft pick. “I’ve spent too much time sitting on the bench watching, so I was glad to be back out there today.”

Before starting his session, Hultzen drew a straight line on the mound in front of the pitching rubber toward home plate as a reminder of where he wants his front foot to land on his delivery.

“I had an issue of stepping really far across my body,” he said. “That probably put a lot of stress on my shoulder. If you’re throwing that far across your body, I’m not saying it was the cause of what happened, but it could have been. We watched video from college and I was a lot straighter then. Still across my body, but there was a big difference from what it was in college and how I was throwing at the beginning of this year.”

The Mariners brass was pleased with what they saw Saturday.

“He looked free and easy,” said Zduriencik. “This is good for him to get back out there. Continued steps.”

With James Paxton making his first Major League start on Saturday night on the heels of Taijuan Walker’s recent debut, Zduriencik and Wedge said it’s encouraging to start thinking of what lies ahead with the promising pitching group.

And despite his largely lost season, Hultzen now is itching to get back into that mix and encouraged by his latest steps on the mound.

“It gives me something to build off,” he said. “I have the opportunity now to go down to Arizona and get a lot better as a baseball player. That’s the way I’m looking at it. It’s kind of what I’ve learned from this experience, to not take anything for granted. I know that sounds kind of sappy, but when you’re healthy and having fun, you take that for granted sometimes. When it’s taken away real quick like that, it kind of puts it in perspective.”

Ibanez looking to finish season strong

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It’s been a tale of two halves for Raul Ibanez this season, but the Mariners veteran isn’t about to write off the last three weeks of play as Seattle heads down the stretch in his 18th Major League campaign.

Ibanez hit a game-tying pinch hit home run in the top of the ninth inning in Seattle’s 7-6 13-inning loss to the Royals on Thursday, just the second homer since July 12 for a man who leads the club with 26 for the season.

Ibanez hit .267 with 24 homers and 56 RBIs in 76 games prior to the All-Star break, but just .231 with two homers and five RBIs since going into Friday’s series opener with the Rays. But he’s heated up of late, batting .360 (9-for-25) over his last eight games and feels like he’s back on track.

“I think I’ve been swinging better lately,” said the 41-year-old outfielder. “I’ve been seeing the ball better. And even when I wasn’t feeling that well, I was battling every at-bat. Obviously the ball wasn’t going over the fence and I wasn’t getting that part of it. But I was scratching and I felt I was putting some at-bats together, fouling pitches off, having long at-bats and all the stuff you need to create momentum.”

His goal for the final 22 games?

“Win,” Ibanez said with a smile. “Win as many games as we can. We’ve got three weeks left and I think it’s a good thing to set the tone for these young guys for next season, to create an environment that is young and competitive and winning and make some stuff happen on the field. Good things have a carryover affect and bad things sometimes have a carryover as well, so to create a good carryover affect for everyone is important.”

Ibanez has seen his playing time reduced in recent weeks, but manager Eric Wedge had him starting Friday’s opener of the Rays series after his pinch-hit home run Thursday. Ibanez’s solo shot off Royals closer Greg Holland was the Mariners’ first two-out, ninth-inning, game-tying pinch hit homer since Brian Hunter’s two-run shot tied up a game in Detroit on Aug. 3, 1996.

“I thought that was the best ball he’d hit in a while, but he’s hit a couple like that lately,” Wedge said. “Obviously he’s had a tremendous year. When you impact a ballgame like he did last night, you want to give him a chance to get back in there. It’s a fine line for us. Obviously we’ve got a lot of young kids up here that want to play and need to play. But you have to also respect a Major League season and what Raul’s done for us and Kendrys Morales as well as a few of the other veterans.”

Here are Friday’s full lineups:

LineupsSept6

Wilhelmsen returns; Zunino to join team Monday

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Former closer Tom Wilhelmsen was recalled from Triple-A Tacoma on Sunday as the first of several September call-ups expected to join the Mariners in the next few days.

Rookie catcher Mike Zunino will be recalled from his injury rehab assignment and join the Mariners on Monday, in time to catch Felix Hernandez’s start in the series opener against the Royals in Kansas City.  Zunino has been out since July 26 with a broken hamate bone in his left hand.

Manager Eric Wedge said the team will wait until Tacoma’s season ends Monday to have several other players brought up and join the club on Tuesday in K.C.

Wilhelmsen, 29, saved 53 games over the past two seasons for Seattle, including 24 this year, but lost his closing job after blowing his fifth save and was optioned to Tacoma on Aug. 5. He went 0-1 with a 10.50 ERA in eight games with the Rainiers, allowing 19 hits and 14 runs in 12 innings with five walks and 15 strikeouts.

The 6-foot-6 right-hander will be used now as a middle-innings reliever as Danny Farquhar has secured the closing job, converting 11 of 12 save opportunities since taking over that role.

“I’m going to use him in multiple roles, really,”  Wedge said. “I’ll just ease him in and see what happens. The sooner we get Tom in there and find out where he is, the sooner we’ll get a better idea of how we can use him.”

Wilhelmsen said he was ready for anything.

“I might even play shortstop or something,” he said with a laugh. “I was starting there, relieving. I was all over the place. Maybe DH. Who knows? We’ll see.”

Though Wilhelmsen started two games in Tacoma, that was just to control his situation and he never threw more than two innings. The club considered converting him to a starting role a year ago, but that is not in the plans now, Wedge said.

“I still feel with his personality, he’s still more of a bullpen guy,” Wedge said. “I think he has the pitches to be a starter if he needs to be, but now you’re talking about stretching a guy out, taking years to stretch a guy out where he can be a viable starter throwing 170-180 or 200 innings. That’s not something that happens overnight without putting him in harm’s way.”

Wedge acknowledged Wilhelmsen didn’t put up great numbers in Tacoma, but said he worked on locating his fastball and getting ahead in counts quicker.

“We’ve seen him come up here before and do well, even better than he did in the Minor Leagues. So hopefully he can flip that switch again,” Wedge said. “I feel strongly that he’s going to be a part of this, in what role I don’t know. He has too big an arm and too much experience and too much success in a vital role up here not to be. So I’m hoping all these trials he’s gone through will ultimately help him be a better bullpen guy because of what he has gone through. He’s seen both sides of it.”

What exactly was Wilhelmsen focusing on in Tacoma?

“Throwing strikes. Just trying to throw strikes,” said the big right-hander. “It’s kind of been that way, not just the last month. That’s what you’re always trying to do. I guess if my numbers weren’t good and I’m working on throwing strikes, that means I’m throwing strikes because they’re hitting ‘em. So I was successful in doing what I was supposed to be doing.”

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