Rodney still not ready to close, plus other Friday news

RodneyFFernando Rodney still isn’t ready to return to the closer’s role for the Mariners, but manager Lloyd McClendon believes the 38-year-old reliever is headed in the right direction after a pair of non-save appearances in Seattle’s last series in Cleveland.

Rookie Carson Smith has closed in the Mariners’ last two save situations, with Rodney pitching the ninth inning in a 9-3 blowout win on Wednesday and the eighth in a 6-0 loss on Thursday to the Indians.

Rodney owns a 6.75 ERA in 26 appearances and blew saves in two of his last three opportunities before McClendon made the switch to Smith, who has a 1.38 ERA in 27 games coming into Friday’s series opener against the Astros.

Rodney has been working on refining some things with pitching coach Rick Waits while throwing in lower-impact situations. He allowed two hits and a run in Wednesday’s win, then threw a hitless inning with one walk on Thursday.

“I don’t think he’s quite ready to go back to the closer’s role,” McClendon said. “We’ll use him where we think it fits the best. He’s getting better. He’s still working on things every day. It’s coming. It’s not quite there yet.”

In other Mariners news on Friday:

• Hisashi Iwakuma emerged from Thursday’s bullpen session in Tacoma without any problems and will now throw a simulated game of about 45 pitches on Monday in Everett against Class-A hitters, since both the Mariners and Rainiers will be on the road early next week.

Iwakuma, sidelined since April 23 with a strained right lat muscle, could be ready for a Minor League rehab start next Saturday for Tacoma if all goes well, McClendon said. The Rainiers play in Albuquerque that day.

• McClendon had Nelson Cruz back at designated hitter on Friday after sitting out two games with back spasms. But the skipper said he won’t hesitate to continue playing Cruz in right field and doesn’t feel that played any part in his back problem.

Cruz had started 37 games in right field and 21 at DH before being sidelined the last two games of the Indians series after feeling his back tighten during an at-bat on Tuesday.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with his play in right field,” McClendon said. “The concern about him playing right field is his hamstring. The back is just something that came up. It was a spasm. He took a funny swing and it caught him. I don’t have any concerns in that area.”

• McClendon said the Mariners are still waiting on results from the latest tests on left-hander James Paxton’s strained tendon in his left middle finger before clearing him to begin throwing. Paxton has been sidelined the past two weeks.

• Looking for a premier pitching matchup? When the Mariners return home for their next homestand on Wednesday, it’ll be Felix Hernandez vs. Giants star Madison Bumgarner in the 7:10 p.m. Interleague series opener at Safeco Field.

• Hernandez is gunning to become the first Major Leaguer to 10 wins this season as Seattle opens its three-game series in Houston on Friday at 4:10 p.m. PT at Minute Maid Park. The Mariners have a chance to pick up some ground on the AL West-leading Astros, who have lost seven straight.

“They’re important games, sure,” acknowledged McClendon. “You’d like to come out of here winning the series. That’s important for us at this stage of the season. I would say it’s probably the most-important series we’ve played to date. I can’t say it’s the biggest series of the year, but it’s important that we play well here.”

The Mariners, currently 6 1/2 games back, face the Astros in six of their next 10 games.

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