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Iwakuma cleared to begin throwing soon

Iwakuma, Hisashi

All-Star right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma finally received some good health news on Monday as doctors cleared him to remove the splint from his sprained middle right finger for the first time since camp opened five weeks ago.

Iwakuma, 32, hasn’t been able to grip or throw a baseball since catching his hand in a netting behind the mound when he was leaping to catch a high chopper during a workout in Los Angeles just before Spring Training began in early February.

The Mariners have no firm timetable in place for the return of the man who finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting last year, but are happy to finally get his throwing program in motion.

“To be honest, it’s been a very, very long five weeks, I can tell you that,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “But the doctor said I could take that splint off and do more with that finger, the actual rehab, so that’s a good thing. I’m looking forward to that. I’ve done everything I could for the last five weeks.”

Iwakuma will do range-of-motion exercises to begin working on the finger’s strength and flexibility for the next few days, then begin throwing a tennis ball on Friday. He’ll advance to throwing a regular baseball on Monday, which will kick off the gradual process of building back up his arm strength.

Both Iwakuma and manager Lloyd McClendon stayed away from any best-case speculation on when he might be ready for games. He clearly won’t be ready for the start of the regular season, which is now less than two weeks away. So he’ll almost surely open the year on the 15-day disabled list and shoot for a return in late April, if all goes well.

 “It’s hard to say, being in my situation right now,” Iwakuma said. “All I feel is wanting to come back soon, but I don’t want to push it and get any more setbacks. It’s a long season, I look forward to finishing strong. That’s all I have in mind right now.”

McClendon said he has no actual target date in mind. The manager is also juggling delayed starts for youngsters Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer. Walker will throw his third bullpen since coming off a week-long layoff with shoulder soreness on Friday and has been strong since his return, but also needs to progress to live hitters and building up his arm again.

Maurer has missed considerable time with a sore back and just started playing catch again Monday.

“I just need to focus on who I’ve got here and what I’ve got available and what I’m dealing with,” McClendon said of a possible target date for Iwakuma. “You get caught up in that and you get disappointed. So I don’t even think about it.”

Iwakuma was equally vague.

“Tough question,” he said. “I can’t give you an exact date. I want to come back as soon as possible and be pain free and be able to go 100 percent by the time I’m out there on the mound.

“One or two starts will get my feel back for my pitches, but I’ll need to build my arm up to get to a certain amount of pitches. That will gradually tell as we go forward.”

Iwakuma can draw some on his experience from 2012, his first season in the Majors. He arrived in camp with a shoulder that wasn’t fully strengthened yet from an injury in his final season in Japan. The Mariners brought him along slowly, pitching him in long relief the first half of the season before moving him into the rotation on July 2.

He wound up going 8-4 with a 2.65 ERA in 16 starts that year, then carried that success over to 2013 when he was 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA and a club-record 1.006 WHIP.

“At that time, I didn’t have that in mind,” Iwakuma said of his slow start in 2012. “But I do realize it’s a very long season after two years under my belt, so that kind of gives me a rough idea of how I need to prepare myself to be able to finish strong this year.”

Here’s the final 40 contenders in camp

With the Mariners having their first off day of the spring today, it’s a good time to take a look at who all is left in camp competing for the final 25 roster berths.

I have a story today on the shortstop battle between Nick Franklin and Brad Miller, which you can read here. But that’s not the only question still remaining. Here’s who all is left fighting for jobs with two weeks to go before Opening Day:

Starting pitchers (will keep five): Right-handers Scott Baker (*), Blake Beavan, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Brandon Maurer, Erasmo Ramirez and Taijuan Walker. Left-handers Roenis Elias (*), James Paxton and Randy Wolf (*).

Relievers (will likely keep seven): Right-handers Danny Farquhar, Dominic Leone (*), Yoervis Medina, Zach Miner (*), Hector Noesi, Stephen Pryor, Ramon Ramirez (*), Fernando Rodney, Carson Smith (*), Tom Wilhelmsen. Left-handers Joe Beimel ((*), Charlie Furbush, Lucas Luetge

Catchers (will likely keep two): John Buck, Humberto Quintero (*), Mike Zunino.

Infielders (will likely keep five or six): Willie Bloomquist, Robinson Cano, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak.

Outfielders (will likely keep five or six): Dustin Ackley, Abraham Almonte, Endy Chavez (*), Cole Gillespie (*), Corey Hart, Stefen Romero, Michael Saunders.

*-denotes non-roster player who would need to be added to the 40-man roster.

Sunday’s Game 21 recap: Mariners 5, Giants 3

Elias, Roenis

Player of the Game: Left-hander Roenis Elias threw five strong innings in his first Cactus League start, allowing just two hits and one run with two walks and two strikeouts against a pretty good Angels lineup. The 25-year-old Cuban defector caught the Mariners attention with a strong camp and now seems to at least be pushing his way into the conversation about potential starters to break camp, given injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer have thinned that competition.

Stat of the Game: The biggest concern with Elias has been his penchant to walk too many batters in the Minors, but he needed just 63 pitches in an efficient outing Sunday as he walked just two batters and kept the game moving at a good pace.

Storyline: Elias wasn’t even scheduled to pitch in this game originally, but the Mariners moved Scott Baker into a Minor League game to avoid facing the Angels for a third time this spring. The move also opened an opportunity to see Elias against a quality opponent and he came through well. Seattle’s offense also fared well against tough Angels lefty C.J. Wilson, putting up four runs (two earned) on six hits in five-plus innings and coming right out of the gates with four singles and a pair of runs in the first.

Worth noting: Much of the spring focus has been on young outfield prospects Abraham Almonte, Stefen Romero, James Jones and Xavier Avery, but Michael Saunders has quietly gone about his business with a very productive spring. Saunders went 2-for-2 with an RBI on Sunday, extending his hit streak to seven games and he’s driven in a team-leading 11 RBIs while batting .367.

Quote of the Day: “It could be. Why not?”– Elias when asked if he felt he had an opportunity to grab a rotation berth with the Mariners despite never pitching above Double-A ball.

Next: The Mariners have their first off day of the spring on Monday. They’ll be back in action Tuesday with veteran southpaw Randy Wolf on the mound for a 7:05 p.m. PT game against the Padres in Peoria. Wolf, 37, has allowed six runs on 10 hits – including four homers – in nine innings over three previous starts as he attempts to land a rotation berth as a non-roster invitee. Second baseman Robinson Cano again will not play as he’ll be returning Tuesday from a trip to the Dominican to deal with a personal issue and won’t be in the lineup until Wednesday.

Here’s today’s boxscore.

Here’s my story on Elias and his motivation to make the Majors after fleeing Cuba four years ago.

Here’s my story on Taijuan Walker’s throwing session this morning, which was good news for the club’s premier prospect.

Here’s today’s notebook with other news from camp.

And here’s video highlights of Elias’ outing today.

Walker throws well, now comes Elias

TaijuanBulllpen

Good news from Taijuan Walker today as the youngster threw a 40-pitch bullpen session and said he felt great. Walker is likely a couple weeks still from throwing in a game and a few more from being Major League ready, in the best-case scenario, but the fact he’s on the mend and throwing well is welcome news.

Meanwhile, a less-heralded youngster, Roenis Elias, makes his starting debut in today’s Cactus League game against the Angels in Tempe at 1:10 p.m. PT.

Elias, a 25-year-old Cuban refugee, pitched Double-A ball last year and was a Southern League All-Star in Jackson. He’s caught Lloyd McClendon’s attention in camp this spring while going 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA in 7 1/3 innings in three relief appearances.

“His stuff is real good,” McClendon said. “When he’s in the zone, they don’t do a lot with it. I like what I see. It was interesting his last outing against Anaheim, he loaded the bases and never panicked. He got three ground ball outs and that says a lot against a pretty good lineup. He’ll be tested today and we’ll see what he’s got.”

What does McClendon want to see from the youngster against that same Angels lineup?

“Better command,” said the skipper. “His stuff is plenty good. I think he has pretty good mound presence. If you look at his numbers in the book, he walks people and then he strikes people out. You’d like to see less walks because you’re not going to strike out as many people at this level. But his stuff is plenty good. He’s an interesting kid.”

Here’s the full lineup for today’s game, which will be carried live on 710 ESPN Seattle.

Abraham Almonte CF
Kyle Seager 3B
Corey Hart DH
Justin Smoak 1B
Michael Saunders RF
Dustin Ackley LF
Mike Zunino C
Brad Miller SS
Willie Bloomquist 2B

Roenis Elias LHP

Saturday’s Game 20 recap: Giants 13, Mariners 6

Almonte, AbrahamPlayer of the Game: Center fielder Abraham Almonte broke out of his spring slump with a 2-for-3 day that included a leadoff home run in the third inning and a base hit in the fourth. Almonte has intrigued manager Lloyd McClendon with his speed and power potential, but is still batting just .167 on the spring after coming into the game hitting 4-for-33. If Almonte is going to win the starting job and leadoff role, he’ll need to produce at the plate and Saturday was a positive step.

Stat of the Game: The Mariners committed four errors, had three wild pitches and a balk in one of their sloppier outings of the spring.

Storyline: With Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker hurting, the Mariners need James Paxton to step up and he’s been strong all spring. The lanky lefty didn’t have his best stuff Saturday, however, and had to scramble out of some early-inning messes to last four innings while throwing 75 pitches. He still wound up allowing just two earned runs and struck out four, putting his spring ERA at 2.13 with two Cactus League outings remaining.

Worth noting: Logan Morrison saw his first action of the spring in the outfield, playing an uneventful five innings in right field while going 1-for-3 with an RBI single at the plate. If Morrison can play some in the outfield, that will allow Corey Hart more time at DH if he has any trouble with his knees.

Quote of the Day: “Yeah, because he knew he was wrong. It was a strike. I looked at the video and it was right there in the middle [of the plate].”  – Closer Fernando Rodney on whether he thought homeplate umpire Adam Hamari had a quick hook after tossing him in the middle of the fifth inning after he questioned a call while pitching to Tyler Colvin.

Next: Roenis Elias, a 25-year-old southpaw who pitched Double-A ball last year, will get his first chance to start a Cactus League game as the Mariners travel to Tempe for a 1:10 p.m. PT game with the Angels. Elias, a non-roster invitee, is emerging as a starting candidate with a strong spring (2-0, 1.23 ERA in 7 1/3 innings over three relief appearances). He’ll throw about five innings or 75 pitches in the game, which is available live on Gameday Audio and 710 ESPN Seattle radio. Veteran Scott Baker, originally slated for the start, instead will pitch in a Minor League game in Peoria after having already faced the Angels twice this spring.

Here’s today’s boxscore.

Here’s a story explaining Robinson Cano’s absence from camp.

Here’s the story on Rodney’s ejection.

And here’s my notebook on the rest of the day’s news from camp, including a look at Elias’ emergence as a starting contender.

Cano to miss next two games; Maurer also sidelined

Cano, RobinsonMariners second baseman Robinson Cano, the biggest free-agent prize of the offseason, will miss the team’s next two Cactus League games after flying home to the Dominican Republic on Friday night.

“He’s taking care of some personal issues, which we knew about in advance,” manager Lloyd McClendon said.

Cano will miss games on Saturday and Sunday, then return Tuesday following the club’s off-day on Monday.

Cano, 31, missed four games last week following root canal surgery, but went 8-for-11 with a pair of doubles while playing the next four games in a row, then didn’t play in Friday night’s 2-2 tie with the Rockies.

The five-time Yankees All-Star his hitting .609 (14-for-23) in nine games this spring, with two doubles and six RBIs.

In other news this morning, McClendon said young right-handed starter Brandon Maurer is still having problems with a sore back and will likely be out another six or seven days, which is a big setback in his bid for a starting role.

The club is taking a longer look now at left-hander Roenis Elias as a starting candidate. The 25-year-old Cuban was 6-11 with a 3.18 ERA in 22 starts for Double-AA Jackson last year. He’ll get the start on Sunday against the Angels, a switch announced Friday after Scott Baker originally had been slated for that game.

McClendon said the team doesn’t want Baker facing the Angels three times in four games this spring, so he’ll throw in a Minor League contest the same day. But the move also gives the club a chance to see Elias in a front-line situation and McClendon said he’s built up to go about five innings or 75 pitches.

“He’s a left-hander who is 91-94 [mph with his fastball], he throws strikes, has quality stuff, he competes, holds runners,”  McClendon said. “It’s been interesting.”

On the good news front, reliever Stephen Pryor threw very well in a live batting practice situation on Friday and could appear in a Minor League game in the next few days, according to McClendon.

The skipper said it’s “probably stretching” to think Pryor could break camp with the team, but clearly he’s making quick progress in his return from surgery and is ahead of schedule.

Here’s today’s lineup for the 1:05 p.m. game with the Giants in Peoria, which includes Logan Morrison seeing his first outfield action with a start in right field. The game will be televised live by ROOT Sports.

Abraham Almonte CF
Kyle Seager 3B
Justin Smoak 1B
Corey Hart DH
Logan Morrison RF
Mike Zunino C
Nick Franklin SS
Michael Saunders LF
Willie Bloomquist 2B

James Paxton LHP

Friday’s Game 19 recap: Mariners 2, Rockies 2

Miller, Brad (2)

Player of the Game: Shortstop Brad Miller went 2-for-2 with a triple, a walk and a run scored and also turned in a defensive gem to continue his strong play this spring. Miller gloved a hard-hit ball behind the bag at second on a hard shot by Michael Cuddyer in the fourth, then flipped a backhand toss to second base to start a double play that helped Felix Hernandez out. Miller is now hitting .407 this spring with eight runs, seven RBIs and a team-leading three homers.

Stat of the Game: Felix Hernandez needed just 41 pitches to get through four innings of work, so he went to the bullpen to throw another 24 in order to get his pitch count up to 65 as he continues prepping for his club-record seventh Opening Day start. He’ll have two more spring outings before facing the Angels on March 31 in Anaheim.

Storyline: Hernandez and Erasmo Ramirez both got in four innings as both continued stretching out for starting roles. Ramirez pitched in relief, but he’s definitely square in the mix for a rotation berth after allowing one run on four hits, putting his spring ERA at 1.42.

Worth noting: Right fielder Stefen Romero hit his second homer of the spring and continues his recent surge at the plate as he’s making a case for being included somewhere on the final roster. Romero swings a needed right-handed bat and has caught fire after an 0-for-16 start to the spring. He’s since hit .474 (9-for-19) with two doubles, two triples, two home runs and four RBIs. Romero, who also made a nice catch on a deep fly ball to right, could be even more critical if Corey Hart continues struggling. He went 0-for-3 on Friday and is hitting. 095.

Quote of the Day: “I told Jesus he did an extremely good job for us in camp,” said manager Lloyd McClendon. “He worked his tail off. He just had so far to go, particularly coming in so heavy. But he made tremendous strides. He probably made the biggest strides of anybody in camp. But he’s only half way there. He has to continue to work and continue to do what he’s doing to get himself back to the big leagues.”  – Manager Lloyd McClendon on the decision to send Jesus Montero down to Minor League camp as one of four cuts on Friday.

Next: James Paxton gets his fourth start of the spring on Saturday as the Mariners host the Giants in a 1:05 p.m. PT game at Peoria Stadium. The 25-year-old lefty is in excellent shape to solidify a spot in Seattle’s rotation as he’s allowed just one run on seven hits with no walks and four strikeouts over nine innings so far in Cactus League play. The game will be televised live on ROOT Sports TV and MLB.TV.

Here’s today’s boxscore.

Here’s a story I wrote on veteran right-hander Scott Baker and his thoughts on the Mariners pitching staff and his own return from Tommy John surgery.

And here’s my notebook with all the news of the day from camp.

Montero among four players cut Friday

Montero, Jesus (2)

Former top catching prospect Jesus Montero, who is attempting to convert to first base this spring, was one of four Mariners players cut from their Major League camp on Friday as the club continued whittling down the contenders for its Opening Day roster.

Montero, 24, was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma along with young outfielders Xavier Avery and James Jones. Those three players are all on the Mariners’ 40-man roster.

The other player cut Friday was shortstop Chris Taylor, who isn’t on the 40-man roster, so technically he was reassigned to Minor League camp. All four will continue working out in the adjacent Minor League complex and can still play in Cactus League games, if they’re called up for that duty in the remaining 17 days of camp.

Montero was the Mariners starting catcher at the start of 2013 after being acquired from the Yankees in a trade for Michael Pineda the year before, but struggled both with the bat and behind the plate and was sent down to Tacoma after hitting .208 in 29 games.

After playing 19 games in Triple-A last year, Montero injured his knee and then was hit with a 50-game suspension in the Biogenesis case. He came to camp this spring carrying extra weight, but has worked to lose that in the past few weeks and has hit well, batting .310 with three doubles, two home runs and five RBIs in 29 at-bats over 12 games.

First base hasn’t gone nearly as smoothly and the former catcher committed two errors in the same inning of Wednesday’s game with the Cubs, but he’ll get a chance to work more on that in Tacoma.

Avery and Jones both played well this spring, but lost out in the numbers game in the outfield. The club still has seven outfielders in camp – Dustin Ackley, Abraham Almonte, Michael Saunders, Corey Hart, Stefen Romero, Endy Chavez and Cole Gillespie, while utility man Willie Bloomquist and first baseman Logan Morrison can also play some outfield.

Jones hit .265 with a home run and six RBIs in 34 at-bats, while Avery batted .240 with five RBIs and three stolen bases in 25 at-bats.

Taylor, 23, was last year’s Mariners Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .314 between Class-A High Desert and Double-A Jackson, but didn’t figure in the big-league team’s plans yet with Nick Franklin and Brad Miller competing for the shortstop job. He hit .158 with a double, a home run and five RBIs in 19 at-bats this spring.

The Mariners have 40 players remaining in their Major League camp, with 29 of those on the 40-man roster and the other 11 being non-roster invitees.

Lots of health updates out of Mariners camp

Hart, CoreyThings are progressing on a couple health fronts for the Mariners, as manager Lloyd McClendon has Corey Hart back in the lineup for tonight’s 6:40 p.m. game against the Rockies at first base after the big man had missed the last five days with a stiff back and sore forearm.

The good news there is Hart’s knees have held up fine, which was the big question this spring after he sat out all of last year with the Brewers following a pair of microfracture surgeries.

“His legs are fine. It’s his back that has been bothering him, but that seems to have cleared up,” McClendon said. “He hasn’t had any problems out of the knees.”

McClendon knocked on his wood desk at that point. And he’s hoping for a couple knocks from Hart in tonight’s game as well as he’s hit just .111 (2-for-16) so far while getting his timing back following his long layoff from game action.

“I think he’s coming along fine,” McClendon said. “He probably tried to do a little too much early. We looked at some film and made some adjustments. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a real good day today. We’ll see how it goes, but I think  you’ll see him swing a little better today.”

In other health news, reliever Stephen Pryor will throw live batting practice today, which is another step forward for the hard-throwing right-hander as he returns from surgery to repair the lat muscle behind his throwing shoulder.

“He threw a simulated last week and that went well,” McClendon said. “We’ll see how it goes. He’s progressing well. He’s throwing under control. It’s firm. He feels real good about where he is. We just have to stay with the program.”

And that holds true for the Mariners’ two injured starters as well. Taijuan Walker felt good on Friday after his initial bullpen session the day before as he returns from an inflamed shoulder that shut him down completely for a week.

Walker will throw long toss again today and Saturday, then another bullpen on Sunday.

“He’s frustrated. He wants to move faster,” McClendon said. “But he’ll stay with the program.”

As for Hisashi Iwakuma? Last year’s ace hasn’t thrown a pitch yet this spring after spraining the tendon in the middle finger of his throwing hand right before camp opened after catching it in a net while jumping to field a ball over his head during a pitching drill.

Iwakuma will see the doctor on Tuesday for more tests and the Mariners have their fingers crossed. If all goes well, Iwakuma could be told that the splint on his finger can come off and he can begin gripping a ball and throwing again, which would allow him to start rebuilding his arm strength.

“Hopefully we’ll have good news on Monday,” McClendon said.

Neither Walker nor Iwakuma will be ready for the start of the regular season, which is now just 17 days away. But if all goes well, they both could return sometime in April and only miss a couple starts each.

McClendon hasn’t posted a lineup yet for tonight, but did say that Robinson Cano will not play after starting the last four in a row.

Thursday’s Game 18 recap: Mariners 6, D-backs 3

BeavanPlayer of the Game: Blake Beavan continues making a strong bid for a starting berth as he’s thrown well in a spring where the Mariners are looking for depth in a rotation that will open the season without Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker. Beavan allowed five hits and one run over 4 2/3 innings with no walks and four strikeouts. The 25-year-old threw 79 pitches and lowered his Cactus League ERA to 2.13 in five outings.

Stat of the Game: Robinson Cano went 2-for-4, which lowered his spring batting average 10 points to .609. Cano laced two singles and had two RBIs as he continued his impressive start. Since returning from a four-day layoff following root canal surgery, Cano has gone 8-for-11 with a pair of doubles in four straight games.

Storyline: The Mariners jumped on Arizona’s Archie Bradley, the D-backs top pitching prospect, for five hits and four runs in two innings to take the early lead and then watched as their own pitchers – Beavan and Hector Noesi – held Arizona to one run over the first seven frames before Yoervis Medina and Zach Miner each gave up a run in the final two innings.

Worth noting: Logan Morrison hit his first home run of the spring and went 2-for-4 while playing first base. Morrison raised his spring average to .303 and is making his case for playing time at designated hitter and backup first baseman. If Corey Hart can play the outfield this season, Morrison appears the most likely candidate for DH time at this point.

Quote of the Day: “For me, the list was a circle. There was nobody at the front of it other than Felix. But he’s done well. I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen.” –McClendon after it was suggested Beavan wasn’t at the top of any media lists of potential starting candidates when camp opened.

Next: Felix Hernandez makes his third Cactus League start Friday at 6:40 p.m. PT as the Mariners travel to Scottsdale to face the Rockies at Salt River Fields. Hernandez gave up four hits and four runs in 2 1/3 innings in his last outing against the Rangers, but said he feels strong as he prepares for his club-record seventh Opening Day start. Erasmo Ramirez is scheduled to pitch in relief and will get an extended outing as he’s competing for a starting rotation berth. Right fielder Corey Hart is expected to return to the lineup after being sidelined since Saturday with a stiff lower back. The game will be carried live on 710 ESPN Seattle.

Here is today’s boxscore.

Here’s a feature story I wrote on the relationship between McClendon and Willie Bloomquist, that goes back to their days together in the Arizona Fall League in 2000.

And here is my notebook with today’s news of the day from camp.

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