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Saunders pumped to be back in thick of playoff chase

Houston Astros v Seattle MarinersAll the Mariners are enjoying being in the thick of the playoff race as the season hits the final stretch run, but none more so than outfielder Michael Saunders.

After spending nearly two months on the disabled list – first with a strained oblique muscle and then with a viral infection – the 27-year-old Saunders rejoined the club Monday and has been in the starting lineup every game since, including Friday’s series opener with the A’s even with Dustin Ackley returning from a four-game absence with a sore ankle.

Saunders has gone 2-for-8 with three walks and a run scored in his first three games and provides a strong defensive presence in right field.

There’s no assurance how much Saunders will play in the final 17 games, with Ackley back and manager Lloyd McClendon also having the option to go with veterans Endy Chavez and Chris Denorfia in right field. But Saunders is thrilled to be part of the mix again with the season on the line.

“It’s extremely fun. It’s like being a kid again,” Saunders said prior to Friday’s game. “It’s not like it’s not always fun during the season when you’re healthy, obviously, but when you take so much time off and then come back right in the heat of a playoff race for the first time, it’s a lot of fun coming to the clubhouse.

“That first game back, I was getting all nervous in the morning. It was like Opening Day for me again. I was extremely frustrated with what I’ve gone through, then knowing how hard I’ve worked to get over that and come back and finally be able to suit up again and go to right, really meant a lot.”

Saunders is hitting .275 in 68 games on the season and says he’s felt right at home stepping back into the lineup despite his extended absence.

“I feel great,” he said. “I would never have come back in the situation we’re in if I wasn’t ready. It’s not about one guy. These games are meaningful to get to the postseason. If I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t be out there.”

Thirteen years later, Bud Selig’s memories of 9/11

SeligCommissioner Bud Selig was at Safeco Field on Wednesday and one of the things he was asked about was his memories of 9/11 when baseball — and most of the world — stopped for a week following the terrorist acts in New York and Washington, D.C.

Since today is the 13th anniversary of that difficult day, it’s interesting to hear his recollections:

“I remember it all too well. We had an owner’s meeting in Milwaukee. That morning was sorrowful. It was stunning. Two things come to mind. I debated long and hard when to come back. I did talk to [NFL commissioner] Paul Tagliabue quite a bit. We came back the following Monday and I was nervous. Oh man, was I nervous. I drove home, had a little dinner and went upstairs and had the television set on. I take seriously the whole social institution. This was so important. I turned on the Cardinal-Brewer game and there was Jack Buck reading a poem that he had written. When he read it, he got an emotional standing ovation. And I cried. I don’t mind telling you that, because I was that nervous. One of the things in the midst of that was should we be here tonight and the crowd roared.

 “I called Jack [the next day] and he was overwhelmed. He’d written that poem on a piece of cardboard. He sent that to me and I have it in my office. It was so emotional. And then of course the World Series in New York. Game 3, I’ve seen a lot of games in my lifetime with a lot of emotion, but I’d never seen anything like that. The crowd chanting USA and President Bush was there. It was so emotional. I kept saying to myself, in our own little way – and little way, I want to be careful there – I hope we helped the nation to recover from an unspeakable tragedy.”

Miller putting together strong finish at shortstop

Miller, BradJust a few weeks ago, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon was looking at Brad Miller as his new utility player, the replacement out of necessity for an injured Willie Bloomquist after losing his starting shortstop role to rookie Chris Taylor.

But Miller never hung his head and instead continued working and regaining his confidence at the plate after a rough first half. And as the season hits the final stretch run, the 24-year-old Florida native has found himself increasingly in the mix while producing positive results and a .273 batting average since the All-Star break.

Miller has batted .429 (12-for-28) with six runs, three doubles, a triple, two home runs and eight RBIs over his last 10 games, including seven starts, as he hiked his season average from .198 to .217 in that span.

“I tried to just prepare the same way and be ready,” Miller said. “Just go with the flow, keep playing and things kind of work themselves out.”

Taylor has performed well also, batting .295 in 33 games since his promotion in late July. But the youngster is 2-for-15 in his last five games and McClendon has leaned toward using Miller against most right-handed pitchers in September.

McClendon says he’ll continue using both shortstops, depending on what matchup he feels gives him the best chance to win each day. But he acknowledged that Miller seems to have found himself again after letting things slow down a bit during his time on the bench. And that doesn’t surprise him, as McClendon felt from the start that Miller had a chance to be a very good offensive shortstop.

“You look at his Minor League numbers, this guy has done things that Robinson Cano didn’t do in the Minor Leagues,” McClendon said, referring to Miller’s .334/.409/.516 line in 219 games from Class-A to Triple-A over the three prior years. “That’s not just something you shake your head at. I knew there was something there.

“And I believe that,” said McClendon. “I think he’s going to be an offensive force in this league for a long time. It’s taken him a little while and there’s still a lot of learning to do. He’ll get better. I think he’s the type of guy who should hit 25 home runs in this league. He’s got that kind of juice in his bat.”

Miller didn’t enjoy being benched in midseason, but tried turning it into a positive.

“I think it all helps,” he said. “Just getting experience and playing, whatever role it is. It’s a long year. I haven’t been through a full year in the big leagues and you learn. You learn through the ups and downs. I’m definitely more aware of the type of player I am and what I have to do to be successful now.”

Saunders returns straight to lineup as Ackley still out

SaundersMichaelOutfielder Michael Saunders was activated from the 15-day disabled list by the Mariners on Monday and immediately inserted into the lineup to face the Astros in the opener of a three-game series at Safeco Field.

Saunders has been out since straining his left oblique muscle on July 10. He began a rehab assignment with Triple-A Tacoma on Aug. 7 and hit .257 in 10 games, but then was sidelined by a viral infection on Aug. 19 and hasn’t played in a game since.

“It’s been extremely frustrating,” Saunders acknowledged. “I was ready to go with my oblique and then I got sick. That couldn’t have come at a worse time. But that’s behind me. I’m focusing on what’s ahead for September. It’s fun. These games mean something. We’re looking at one goal and that is to make the playoffs. Things are looking good.”

The sixth-year veteran has been working out and playing in simulated games at the team’s Minor League facility in Peoria, Ariz., the last week.

“We did the best we could do,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He took some batting practice, ran, threw. From a conditioning standpoint, he’s ready to go. I don’t know if he’s game ready or not, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hopefully he can jump start us.”

With left fielder Dustin Ackley ailing with a sore left ankle, Saunders was penciled into the lineup in right field for Monday’s game against the Astros, with Endy Chavez shifting over to left.

Ackley was scheduled for an MRI test on a sore left ankle, but said he doesn’t think the situation is anything serious after sitting out his second straight game after being removed midway through Saturday’s 4-2 win.

“It’s a little better than it was the other day, but they want to get it checked out and see if it’s inflammation or whatever and go from there,” he said prior to Monday’s game. “I don’t know a whole lot until they get in there and look at it, but it doesn’t seem like it’s anything crazy.”

McClendon still debating Young’s next start

Manager Lloyd McClendon and pitching coach Rick Waits watched a pregame bullpen session by veteran pitcher Chris Young on Wednesday morning at O.co Coliseum and now will make a decision whether he makes his next start Saturday in Texas.

McClendon has expressed concern whether Young is fully healthy after he lasted just two-thirds of an inning in his last start while giving up five runs to the A’s in a 6-1 loss on Monday. The veteran has allowed 11 hits and eight runs with seven walks and two strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings over his last two starts and was given three extra days rest before his last outing as the club looks to keep him fresh after he missed almost all of 2013 with shoulder issues.

Young is 12-7 with a 3.46 ERA in 27 games this season and has been a big part of the Mariners success, but top prospect Taijuan Walker is lined up to pitch Saturday if needed as he threw six innings of one-run relief following Young’s departure Monday.

McClendon said he’ll sit down with general manager Jack Zduriencik on Wednesday and have a decision by Thursday.

“He had a good bullpen. He threw the ball good,” McClendon said. “I just want to make sure he’s healthy. That’s the only factor that really comes into play.”

As for how much he could see in the throwing session?

“I think we can get a lot from it,” McClendon said. “We’ll see. I’ll talk to Jack and we’ll go from there.”

McClendon: Zunino will be All-Star in ‘very near future’

Zunino, Mike-STMike Zunino got the day off Tuesday as he rides an 0-for-14 streak at the plate, but the young catcher will be back in the lineup for Wednesday’s series finale against A’s left-hander Jon Lester and manager Lloyd McClendon continues expressing full confidence in the 23-year-old.

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“Mike’s slugging percentage and performance against left-handers is better, so I’ll rest him [Tuesday] and get him back in there,” McClendon said after opting for Jesus Sucre in the middle game of the series.

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Zunino’s batting average has dropped to .201, but he’s second on the club with 19 home runs, has 48 RBIs in 108 games and continues to solidify the Mariners play behind the plate.

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“Mike Zunino is going to be an All-Star catcher in the very near future,” McClendon said. “From an offensive standpoint, we’re dealing with a young man in his second year in the big leagues. He’s got more at-bats in the big leagues than the minor leagues. That should tell you where he is. It’s almost unthinkable he could be in the big leagues after 300 Minor League at-bats.

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“Is he going to struggle a little bit? Yeah. Are there going to be growing pains? Absolutely. Are there going to be times you wonder if he’s ever going to get a hit again? Yeah. He also has more home runs than any catcher in the American League. So he’s doing a few things right.”

McClendon evaluating Young’s rotatation spot

Seattle Mariners v Boston Red SoxAfter pushing Chris Young’s last start back an extra three days and then seeing him get knocked out after two-thirds of an inning Monday, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said Tuesday he’s facing a decision now whether to keep the veteran right-hander in the rotation.

Young has been a big part of the Mariners success this season with a 12-7 record and 3.46 ERA in 27 games (26 starts), but he has had two rough outings in a row and McClendon wants to make sure he’s healthy as he’s passed 150 innings for the first time since 2007 after a series of injury-plagued seasons.

“He threw seven starts in the Minor Leagues last year. He’s in uncharted territory,” McClendon said. “I have to watch him and evaluate and make a decision.”

The Mariners have an option already lined up as rookie right-hander Taijuan Walker threw six innings of one-run ball in relief and 89 pitches Monday and could simply step in Saturday in Texas in Young’s next scheduled start.

McClendon said he talked to Young after the 35-year-old gave up five runs on four hits and two walks while getting only two outs in Monday’s 6-1 loss and he’ll observe the big right-hander’s long-toss and bullpen sessions and figure out his course of action.

“He assured me he felt healthy and I assured him I would do what is best for this club,” McClendon said. “I’m going to evaluate in the next day or two and we’ll make a decision. If I deem him 100 percent healthy, yes, he’ll start.”

Young said after Monday’s start that he feels fine physically.

“I feel good. I wouldn’t take the ball if I didn’t,” he said. “Every pitcher goes through a period during the season where they don’t throw the ball as well and mine is right now. I’m going to get through it, I’m going to keep working and I’m going to finish strong.”

But Young walked five batters in his prior start in Boston when he gave up seven hits and three runs while needing 93 pitches to get through just 3 2/3 innings and he issued two more walks and struggled with his location again before McClendon pulled him in the first inning after 36 pitches on Monday.

“He’s not a big velocity guy anyway,” McClendon said. “What concerns me is command with him because he’s not a power guy. When he starts to lose command, yeah, I’m a little concerned about it.”

Mariners add seven September callups, more coming

Smoak catchTop pitching prospect Taijuan Walker and veterans Justin Smoak and Corey Hart were among seven players added by the Mariners from Triple-A Tacoma on Monday as the 25-man roster was supplemented by September call-ups.

Teams are allowed to expand their roster for the final month of the regular season and the Mariners took advantage by returning Hart from his Minor League rehab assignment and recalling four others who’d been with the club earlier this year in Smoak, Walker, outfielder Stefen Romero and left-handed reliever Lucas Luetge.

The club also selected catcher Humberto Quintero and right-handed reliever Carson Smith, two players who had to be added to the 40-man roster in order to join the big-league club. To make room on the 40-man roster, utility man Willie Bloomquist was transferred from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day DL and infielder Jesus Montero was placed on the suspended list.

Two more pitchers – starters James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez – are expected to be added as well, but those two have to wait until Tacoma plays its final game on Monday since they were optioned to Triple-A last week. Players who have been optioned must spend 10 days in the Minors, or wait until that team’s season ends, before being recalled.

Paxton is scheduled to start Tuesday’s game in Oakland and he was sent down strictly to open a spot for Ramirez and then for outfielder James Jones as the Mariners did some roster maneuvering last week. Outfielder Michael Saunders is another who will likely be added, but he’s still recovering from an illness that has sidelined him for more than a week.

Walker went 1-2 with a 3.60 ERA in three starts for the Mariners this season, but has spent most of the year with Tacoma, where he went 6-4 with a 4.81 ERA in 14 starts after a late arrival due to shoulder issues.

Hart hit .273 with three home runs and five RBIs in nine rehab starts while returning from a bruised right knee that sidelined him on Aug. 1. The two-time National League All-Star has been trying to get healthy all year after missing 2013 with two microfracture knee surgeries. He’s hit .203 with five homers and 20 RBIs in 58 games for Seattle since signing a one-year deal in free agency last winter.

Romero and Smoak have both been swinging hot bats of late. Romero hit .390 with 21 runs, nine home runs and 27 RBIs in 25 games since being optioned to Tacoma on Aug. 1. For the year, he’s hit .358 with 12 homers and 38 RBIs for the Rainiers after splitting time with Seattle.

Smoak has hit .447 with six doubles, one home run and 18 RBIs over his past 21 games for the Rainiers. Smoak was sent down by the Mariners in July after losing his starting job at first base to Logan Morrison, but he was back in the lineup Monday for Seattle’s series opener with the A’s in Oakland.

Luetge is another who has split time between Seattle and Tacoma this season, going 3-2 with a 3.32 ERA in 43 appearances for the Rainiers.

Quintero and Smith are making their first appearances with Seattle this year. Quintero, 35, is a veteran catcher who hit .290 in 73 games with Tacoma and gives Seattle some depth behind Mike Zunino and Jesus Sucre. Smith, 24, earned his first Major League promotion after posting a 2.93 ERA with 10 saves in 39 appearances for Tacoma.

Erasmo recalled, could stick in rotation

Ramirez, ErasmoRight-hander Erasmo Ramirez was officially recalled by the Mariners on Wednesday to start against the Rangers, with rookie southpaw James Paxton optioned to Triple-A Tacoma to open a spot on the 25-man roster.

Paxton isn’t scheduled to pitch again until next Tuesday in Oakland, at which point he can be recalled when rosters are expanded with September call-ups.

Ramirez has gone 1-5 with a 4.06 ERA in 13 starts for Seattle this season in five previous stints with the club as he’s split the season between the Mariners and Rainiers. The 24-year-old has a 1.15 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings over his last six starts in the Majors, though he’s given up 23 hits and 19 walks in that stretch.

Ramirez opened the season as the Mariners No. 2 starter with Hisashi Iwakuma on the disabled list and Chris Young and Roenis Elias still unknown commodities. He won his opener against the Angels on April 1 with seven innings of two-run ball, but hasn’t had a big-league victory since.

The Nicaraguan native pitched well recently in Tacoma, going 5-2 with a 3.12 ERA his last 10 starts and 3-1 with a 2.28 ERA in four August outings.

“I’ve seen a lot of growth,”  manager Lloyd McClendon said. “The command of the fastball is a lot better, his secondary stuff is more crisp. I don’t think he’s pitching away from bats any more. He’s making quality pitches with two strikes. He’s come a long way. This is a very deserving opportunity for him.”

Ramirez’s spot start, combined with Thursday’s off day, allows the rest of the rotation to get an extra two days of rest before their next starts and the start of the September stretch run.

“This move was made more because of what he’s done and how he’s pitched at Triple-A,” McClendon said. “It afforded us the opportunity to back the other guys up. I’m really happy for him. I think he’s come a long way.”

McClendon didn’t rule out a scenario where Ramirez stays in the rotation going forward if he pitches well.

“That’s very possible. Absolutely,” he said. “I would say it’s Plan B. It’s definitely in effect. We’ll see how things go. But it’s a definite option and one we’d be very comfortable with.”

Paxton definitely will remain in the rotation and will slide right back in when he’s recalled next week. The 25-year-old has been outstanding when healthy and threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings in a 5-0 victory over the Rangers on Tuesday. Paxton is now 7-1 with a 1.71 ERA in 11 career starts and 4-1, 1.83 ERA in seven outings this season.

The only other Major League pitchers to debut since 1944 with at least seven wins and an ERA lower than Paxton’s 1.71 in their first 11 career starts were Steve Rogers (7-3, 1.28 ERA in 1973 with the Expos) and Phil Niekro (8-3, 1.20 in 1967 with the Braves).

Zduriencik gets multiyear extension as GM

Zduriencik, McClendonJack Zduriencik, whose Mariners are contending for their first postseason berth since 2001, has received a multiyear contract extension as executive vice president and general manager, the club announced on Tuesday.

Zduriencik is in his sixth season as GM, and the Mariners enter Tuesday’s game against the Rangers with a record of 71-59, having already equaled last year’s win total with 32 games remaining. Exact terms of the extension were not disclosed.

“Since Jack took over after the 2008 season, we have been building toward our ultimate goal, which is to win the World Series,” said Mariners president Kevin Mather. “We believe, with the efforts of Jack and his staff, we are now well positioned as an organization to be a contender for many years to come.”

Lloyd McClendon, hired by Zduriencik last offseason to replace Eric Wedge as field manager, said he’s been thrilled by the working relationship that has quickly developed.

“I think it’s well deserved,” McClendon said of the extension. “Jack has done a tremendous job of putting this club together and making the necessary acquisitions to make us better. I just think he’s done a tremendous job all around, starting with Spring Training, and getting the pieces that we needed to be competitive. Hopefully this continues to build.”

Zduriencik has been in Major League Baseball for 35 years, previously working with the Mets, Dodgers, Pirates and Brewers before joining Seattle prior to the 2009 campaign.

Zduriencik is the eighth GM in Mariners history and is credited with helping rebuild the club’s farm system and developing a young core that is now maturing at the Major League level.

McClendon said the club’s Minor League system is one of the best in baseball, something he knew before he even took his job last winter.

“I didn’t need to be here to know what they’ve got,” McClendon said. “This is one of the finest farm systems in all of baseball. I don’t think you’ll find anybody that would tell you different. We’re tremendously talented in the middle of the field, we’ve got some tremendous arms in the Minor Leagues and certainly some real nice bats at the lower levels. I’m excited about what the future holds for this club. I said it in my initial press conference, this is a golden era for the Seattle Mariners and it’s only going to get better.”

When Wedge resigned last year after failing to get a desired multiyear extension prior to the end of a 71-91 season, he blasted Zduriencik in a newspaper report and called the organization “dysfunctional,” a point McClendon wryly made light of on Tuesday.

“We talk every day on a lot of different subjects,” he said of working with Zduriencik. “We’re probably as dysfunctional as dysfunctional can get. It’s a pretty good relationship.

“Seriously, and this is a real important point, when you talk about dealing with someone on a daily basis, the one thing you have to understand is the first thing you need to do is agree that sometimes you’re going to disagree, to make your organization better. It’s not always about ‘I love you’ and ‘You love me.’

“There are some days when he leaves this office with a bandage over his head and other days I leave the office with a bandage over my head,” McClendon said. “But our relationship is one of mutual respect. I think he’s tremendous at what he does and I hope he’s proud of the job I’ve done for him. It’s pretty good.”

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