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Wanted: Better at-bats up and down lineup

CruzHRThe way Lloyd McClendon sees it, the solution is pretty simple. His Mariners seem to have squared away their early pitching problems. Now they just need to get the expected offensive production to support those arms.

The Mariners averaged 3.57 runs in their first 23 games, down from their 2014 full-season average of 3.91. After Friday’s 4-3 loss to the Astros, their batting average registered at .236, down from last year’s .244. The on-base percentage has slipped from .300 to .291.

Given new addition Nelson Cruz (pictured) has hit .330 and led the American League in home runs and RBIs in his first month, those are disappointing results. Through Friday’s games, the Mariners ranked 13 among the AL’s 15 teams in scoring and batting average and 14th in on-base percentage. They are tied for fifth in home runs and eighth in slugging percentage, but those numbers haven’t translated to increased run production.

“It’s real simple,” McClendon said prior to Saturday’s game with the Astros. “Just like I said with the pitching. If you pitch and play defense, you’ve got a chance to win. But you’ve got to score. You have to outscore the other team. And we’ve had bad at-bats. I’m not going to sugarcoat things. When we’re bad at the plate, we’re bad and I’m going to point it out and I don’t care who doesn’t like it.

“I saw somebody in the paper said I’m frustrated,” said McClendon. “I’m not frustrated, I’m just speaking facts. We’re bad. We’ve got to get better. We’ve got professional hitters in that locker room and they’ve got to give me better at bats and it’s just that simple.”

And what if that doesn’t happen?

“Then I’ll be at the track betting on the Kentucky Derby,” he said with a chuckle.

McClendon made one lineup change Saturday, inserting right-handed hitting Rickie Weeks in left field in place of Dustin Ackley even against Astros right-hander Collin McHugh. McClendon’s decision was based on Ackley’s 0-for-13 career performance against McHugh, with six strikeouts.

But with Ackley hitting just .190, he said it’s likely that he could opt for either right-handers Weeks or Justin Ruggiano more against future right-handers as well.

Clearly the Mariners need to get production from more than just Cruz. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager didn’t have big first months and many of the Mariners seem to be pressing too hard early to provide the needed support. McClendon said that has been evident in the number of hitters chasing bad pitches.

“Anytime you go outside the strike zone, it’s one of two things,” he said. “Either you’re not seeing the ball or you’re trying to do too much. And I think right now, we’re trying to do too much. When you’re talking about driving in runs, it’s a real simple process. You have to get a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it. We’re doing neither. We’re not getting a good pitch to hit and we’re not putting good swings on bad pitches. And that’s going to equate to not scoring runs.”

• McClendon said reliever Tom Wilhelmsen came out of Friday’s bullpen session without any problems and will throw another on Sunday before the club determines whether he’s ready to go out on a Minor League rehab. Wilhelmsen has been on the 15-day disabled list since April 11 with a hyperextended elbow.

• Logan Morrison hit his first triple in 121 games with the Mariners on Friday, but he had 16 three-baggers in 363 games with the Marlins, including seven in just 62 games in 2010 when he was called up midseason as a rookie.

“That’s when I was a little younger and lighter and before knee surgeries,” said the 27-year-old first baseman. “But I can still run a little.”

Iwakuma likely out another 3-4 weeks

IwakumaHisashi Iwakuma has begun playing long toss back in Seattle, but remains three-to-four weeks away from rejoining the Mariners, manager Lloyd McClendon said on Friday.

Meanwhile, reliever Tom Wilhelmsen took a step toward his own return from the 15-day disabled list as he threw a bullpen session at Minute Maid Park prior to Friday’s game with the Astros. Both right-handers were big parts of last season’s pitching staff that led the American League in ERA.

Iwakuma has missed two starts since straining the lat muscle behind his right shoulder and going on the 15-day DL, while Wilhelmsen has been sidelined since April 11 with a hyperextended right elbow.

Wilhelmsen is closer to returning as he threw 25 pitches off the mound on Friday for the first time since his injury. He’ll throw another bullpen session on Sunday before it’s determined if he’s ready to go out on a Minor League rehab. If all goes well, he should be ready to rejoin the club in mid-May.

The 31-year-old reliever said he threw fastballs and sinkers at about 90-95 percent on Friday and “felt great. No issues at all.”

Wilhelmsen has been out longer than initially expected, but says he’s progressing fine now.

“The first few times I played catch, my shoulder felt a little cranky,” he said. “But that was just due to not doing anything physically with it for awhile. After we got out to 100 feet, it loosened up and there have been no problems for the last week or so.”

Iwakuma, who remained behind in Seattle to rehab during the current 10-game road trip, is just beginning the process of starting to play catch. The 2013 All-Star was 0-1 with a 6.61 ERA in his first three starts before reporting soreness behind his shoulder.

With Iwakuma expected to miss most of May, left-hander Roenis Elias made his second start in his place on Friday against the Astros.

• Second baseman Robinson Cano finished April going 2-for-22 in his last five games as his average dropped from .304 to .253, but McClendon said he’s not worried about the six-time All-Star with a .309 career average.

“He’s working at it,” McClendon said before Friday’s game. “He’s in a little funk now, but Robbie has a tremendous track record. I think when it’s all said and done, his numbers will be right where they’re supposed to be. We went through this last year and had this same conversation. He’s going to hit. He’s going to be just fine.”

• On the flip side, Nelson Cruz finished his first month with the Mariners batting .322 while leading the American League with a .724 slugging percentage. Cruz finished the month tied with Boston’s Hanley Ramirez for the Major League lead in home runs (10) and RBIs (22) and second to the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez (.790) in slugging percentage. He also led MLB with five game-winning RBIs.

Hultzen to make season debut in AA on Friday

Hultzen (2)Mariners left-hander Danny Hultzen, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball before running into shoulder problems two years ago, will make his first start in a regular-season game in 20 months on Friday when he takes the mound for Double-A Jackson against Pensacola in Jackson, Tenn.

Hultzen, 25, missed the entire 2014 season while working his way back from surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and labrum. He last pitched in a Minor League game on Sept. 1, 2013 for Triple-A Tacoma, throwing two innings before being shelved and eventually undergoing surgery a month later.

Hultzen threw well in Spring Training before being sent down to Minor League camp. The Mariners are taking a slow approach with his return and kept him in Arizona for a month of extended Spring Training before clearing the way for his season debut Friday.

Hultzen is no stranger to Jackson fans. He began his pro career with the Generals in 2012 when he teamed with Taijuan Walker and James Paxton on a club that went 42-28 and won the first-half North Division title in the Southern League when he was 8-3 with a 1.19 ERA in 13 starts.

Hultzen was promoted to Triple-A Tacoma at midseason that year and started out 2013 with the Rainiers again, posting a 4-0 mark with a 2.05 ERA before his shoulder problems cropped up. He was rated as the No. 18 prospect in baseball by MLB.com that year, but has since fallen out of those Top 100 rankings due to his injury issues.

MLB.com currently ranks Hultzen as the 25th best prospect in the Mariners organization, a position that could change quickly if he returns to full health. Hultzen was the second overall pick in the 2011 Draft and was considered a key component in Seattle’s pitching plans until his shoulder problems arose.

Hultzen will be officially added to Jackson’s roster on Friday prior to the 7:05 p.m. ET game, which will be carried live on MiLB.TV.

• The Mariners are catching a hot Houston club in their four-game series at Minute Maid Park as the Astros opened a four-game lead in the early American League West chase by going 8-1 on their last road trip, the lone loss coming at Seattle.

“They’re a pesky group,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said prior to Thursday’s series opener. “They’ve got a lot of young talent and they’re feeling real good about what they’re doing right now. And rightfully so. Their pitching has been great, their defense has been good. This should be an interesting series.”

• Mariners right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen is scheduled for a bullpen session on Friday at Minute Maid Park, his first time throwing off a mound since hyperextending his right elbow on April 11 in Oakland. Wilhelmsen is likely looking at another throwing session after that before going out on a Minor League rehab stint.

• The Mariners have designated Saturday, May 9, against the A’s as their first of four games with peanut-controlled seating sections at Safeco Field for fans with severe peanut allergies. View Box seats for the peanut-controlled games are $12 and the special seating can be purchased online at http://www.mariners.com/nopeanuts. The other three games are June 23 against the Royals, July 10 against the Angels and Aug. 11 vs. the Orioles.

Seager’s streak of 146 starts snapped by sore thumb

SeagerKyleMariners third baseman Kyle Seager had his string of 146 straight starts snapped as manager Lloyd McClendon didn’t pencil him into the lineup against Texas for Wednesday’s series finale in order to rest a sore left thumb.

Seager said the thumb got jammed about a week earlier, but indicated it was “a non-issue.” The 2014 American League All-Star has gone just 4-for-21 over the last six games, however, as his average dropped from .302 to .270.

“It’s not too bad,” he said. “If you take a good swing it feels good. If you take a bad swing, it feels bad. If it gets jammed, obviously it vibrates you pretty good. But if you’re hitting the ball on the barrel or putting good swings on it, you don’t even feel it.”

So what has he noticed in recent games?

“I can feel that I’m taking a lot of bad swings,” Seager said with a smile. “But no, it’s not a big issue.”

Seager hadn’t been out of the starting lineup since last season on May 10.

“I’m just giving him a day,” said McClendon, who started Willie Bloomquist in Seager’s place. “His thumb is a little banged up, a little bruise. But he’s fine. He could play, but I think it’s a good time. We’ve still got another seven games on this road trip, so it’s a good day to give him a day.”

As for whether the sore thumb is affecting his swing?

“It could be. You never know,” said McClendon. “I think he’s probably going outside the zone a little too much. But it could be affecting him a little bit. That’s another reason to give him a day and just rest it up.”

Seager has been receiving pregame treatment on the thumb and icing it after games, but said it’s just the normal wear-and-tear of a 162-game season.

“Stuff like this happens all the time,” he said. “You just kind of play through it and don’t make an issue of it. It’s something that is going to be there. It doesn’t hinder me from doing anything or stop me from playing. It’s just going to be a little annoying until it feels better.”

McClendon said Seager would be available off the bench as a defensive replacement if the Mariners hold a lead in the late innings Wednesday. If he doesn’t play at all, his streak of 146 straight games will come to an end. Only three Major Leaguers have played more games in a row — Evan Longoria (263), Freddie Freeman (188) and Adrian Beltre (160).

Seager has appeared in 539 of Seattle’s 557 games since Aug. 6, 2011.

Wilhelmsen takes another step in rehab process

WilhelmsenChangeMariners reliever Tom Wilhelmsen played catch up to about 120 feet on Tuesday at Globe Life Park in Arlington as he took another step toward returning from a hyperextended right elbow that has sidelined him the past two and a half weeks.

Wilhelmsen is eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list as soon as he’s fully recovered, with a mid-May return likely if all goes as expected. The 31-year-old right-hander threw for about 25 minutes in the outfield prior to Seattle’s game with the Rangers and will have a similar session on Thursday before he’s scheduled to take to the mound in Houston on Friday for a bullpen session.

If all goes well this week, Wilhelmsen could throw another bullpen or a simulated game early next week in Anaheim before being sent out an a Minor League rehab assignment about the time the Mariners return home at the end of their current 10-game road trip.

Wilhelmsen said his arm felt great on Tuesday and the hard part now is sticking with the rehab program set up by the team’s training staff.

“I’m ready to go,” Wilhelmsen said. “I’m pretty eager. Once everything is feeling good, you want to get right back into it.”

Wilhelmsen made just two appearances this season, allowing two runs and five hits in 2 2/3 innings, before injuring his arm when he got accidentally twisted backward by teammate Danny Farquhar as Farquhar ran by while he was stretching in the bullpen in Oakland on April 11.

Wilhelmsen was a critical part of last year’s bullpen success as he posted a 2.27 ERA in 79 1/3 innings over 57 appearances.

• While Nelson Cruz hit .382 with nine homers and 19 RBIs in his first 14 games in right field compared to .100 with no homers and two RBIs in his initial five games at designated hitter, manager Lloyd McClendon said that hasn’t played into his decision to use the 34-year-old more in the outfield than many expected so far.

“When I think he needs a day for his legs, I give it to him,” said McClendon, who had Cruz at DH in Tuesday’s game. “If not, I’m going to play him in the outfield. I reassess it every day. I have to make sure I keep him healthy. I have to be smart about it.”

• Broadcasters Aaron Goldsmith and Dave Sims are flipping roles for the Rangers and upcoming Astros series, with Goldsmith moving into the TV booth alongside Mike Blowers and Sims taking radio duties alongside Rick Rizzs. The Mariners will use that alignment at various times this year as a change of pace.

Thunderstorm makes for adventurous trip to Dallas

After a turbulent ride and a late-night diversion to San Antonio due to heavy thunderstorms in Texas, the Mariners charter plane from Seattle arrived at Love Field in Dallas about 3:30 a.m. CT on Monday.

The Mariners originally were scheduled to arrive in Dallas around midnight after losing an 11-inning, 4-2 game to the Twins at Safeco Field on Sunday afternoon, but one attempt at landing was aborted and the plane was sent to San Antonio – about 280 miles to the south – to refuel and wait for the weather to clear.

The team and traveling party spent about two hours on the runway at San Antonio before being allowed to make the bumpy flight back to Dallas, where they finally landed at 3:25 a.m. and eventually reached their hotel just before 5 a.m.

“Worst flight ever. #thankGoditsover” tweeted outfielder Justin Ruggiano.

Broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith tweeted that “the team pilot earned a merit badge tonight.”

And pitcher Taijuan Walker, who is scheduled to start Monday night’s game, offered a simple: “Wooo” on his Twitter account.

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The Rangers also had some travel issues as they were diverted to Austin on their flight home from Anaheim.

The two teams are scheduled for a three-game series starting Monday at 5:05 p.m. CT at Globe Life Park.

While the weather cleared on Monday morning, the forecast calls for more thunderstorms in the Arlington area on Monday evening, with rain projected through Tuesday afternoon.

Iwakuma goes on 15-day DL with strained lat

IwakumaMariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, one of the top starters in the American League the past three seasons, was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Friday with a strained lat muscle behind his right shoulder.

Left-handed reliever Lucas Luetge was recalled from Triple-A Tacoma to temporarily fill Iwakuma’s spot on the 25-man roster.

Iwakuma, 33, had gone 0-1 with a 6.61 ERA in his first three starts and was removed after just 71 pitches in his last outing, though he said he felt fine physically afterward even though his velocity has been down this year. He allowed four runs and five hits — including a pair of solo home runs — in 5 1/3 innings in that no-decision to the Astros on Monday and wasn’t sharp in his first two starts against the Angels and Dodgers either.

Iwakuma had been scheduled to make his next start in Sunday afternoon’s series finale against the Twins, but the decision to place him on the DL came after he played catch prior to Friday’s game at Safeco Field. He was to undergo an MRI test on Friday night to further evaluate the injury. The move is retroactive to April 21, so he’ll be eligible to return on May 6.

No announcement has been made on who will make Sunday’s start, though left-hander Roenis Elias would be the logical choice to be recalled from Triple-A Tacoma.

Iwakuma was 15-9 with a 3.52 ERA in 28 starts last season and 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA in 33 starts in 2013, when he was named to the American League All-Star team. After moving into the Mariners rotation on July 2, 2012, Iwakuma had the ninth-lowest ERA in the Majors at 2.97 from that point to the end of last season.

Over the last two seasons, Iwakuma’s WHIP of 1.026 was the fifth lowest in the Majors among qualified starters, but that number was 1.408 in his first three games this year and he’d allowed five home runs in 16 1/3 innings.

Elias went 10-12 with a 3.85 ERA in 29 starts for Seattle as a rookie last season, but didn’t make the rotation this spring and started the season in Tacoma. He’s 2-0 with an 8.04 ERA in three starts for the Rainiers. His last start came on Monday, so he’d be on line to start Sunday if that’s the direction the Mariners choose.

Luetge presumably will be used to bolster the bullpen on a short-term basis until Iwakuma’s starting spot is filled. He’s posted a 3.24 ERA in 8 1/3 innings over five appearances for Tacoma.

Carlos Quentin signed to Minor League deal

Colorado Rockies v San Diego PadresTwo-time All-Star outfielder Carlos Quentin has signed a Minor League Deal with the Mariners and will report to Triple-A Tacoma, the club announced Wednesday.

Quentin, 32, was released by the Braves on April 14 after being acquired nine days earlier as part of a trade that sent Cameron Maybin and Matt Wisler to Atlanta for Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr.

Quentin dealt with knee issues much of the past two years and hit .177 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 50 games last season for San Diego. He had two stints on the disabled list, missing 39 games at the start of the season with a bone bruise in his left knee and 58 games at the end of the year due to soreness in the same knee.

He’s a career .252/.347/.484 hitter with 154 home runs and 491 RBIs in nine Major League seasons with the Diamondbacks (2006-07), White Sox (2008-2011) and Padres (2012-14) after being drafted out of Stanford in the first round in 2003 by Arizona.

Quentin was an American League All-Star and Silver Slugger winner in 2008 with the White Sox when he hit .288 with 36 homers and 100 RBIs. He earned his second All-Star berth in 2011 when he batted .254 with 24 homers and 77 RBIs, his fourth straight season with 20-plus homers.

The Braves are responsible for the $8 million on Quentin’s contract for this season, minus the Major League minimum of just over $500,000 that Seattle will assume.

Quentin is a right-handed hitter who has played strictly left and right field in his career, though he could be worked some at first base in Tacoma to increase his options.

Paxton’s ERA hiked by scoring change

PaxtonPicAn official scoring change by Major League Baseball has added five earned runs to James Paxton’s start on Sunday, raising the Mariners left-hander’s ERA from 5.40 to 8.40 in one swoop.

Paxton allowed seven runs in the second inning of Sunday’s 11-10 victory over the Rangers, but only two of the runs were initially ruled as earned due to an error charged to shortstop Willie Bloomquist on a ground ball by Elvis Andrus.

But the Rangers appealed the scoring on the play to MLB and the league agreed that Andrus should have been awarded a single on the slow roller to Bloomquist, whose throw pulled first baseman Logan Morrison off the bag after he charged in to field the ball behind the mound.

Andrus was the second batter in the inning and Paxton wound up allowing singles to the first four hitters and eight hits overall in the frame before being replaced after 2 2/3 innings.

The scoring change shifted Paxton from nine earned runs in 15 innings to 14 earned runs in his first three starts.

Seattle’s team ERA also climbed from 4.68 to 5.03 with the change.

Major League Baseball often overrules scoring changes when teams appeal decisions. Last year, a late-season scoring change lowered Felix Hernandez’s ERA enough so that he won the American League ERA title.

The Paxton change was one of two made by MLB affecting the Mariners on Tuesday. The league also announced a change in Seattle’s April 15 game against the Dodgers, crediting Austin Jackson with a base hit and taking away an error from Adrian Gonzalez.

That change raised Jackson’s batting average from .250 to .268 and added an earned run to the line of Dodgers pitcher Brett Anderson.

Cruz clubs his way to AL Player of Week honor

CruzFirstDayNelson Cruz wasted no time making an impact on the Mariners offense and the big slugger’s imprint was noticed as the 34-year-old right fielder earned American League Player of the Week honors on Monday for his powerful performance over the previous seven days.

Cruz was selected for the week of April 13-19, during which he hit .500 (12-for-24) with six home runs, 10 RBIs, seven runs and a 1.806 OPS in six games.

It is the fourth AL Player of the Week honor for Cruz in his 11-year career and first with the Mariners after signing a four-year, $57 million deal in December.

In six games against the Dodgers and Rangers, Cruz had a hit in every game and reached base 15 times either by hit or walk, capped by a two-homer day on Sunday that he capped off with a walk-off single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in an 11-10 victory over Texas.

In the six games, Cruz led the Majors in home runs, RBIs and OPS, as well as with his 1.250 slugging percentage and 30 total bases. He also was second in the Majors in runs (7), tied for third in hits (12) and had the third-highest batting average (.500) and on-base percentage (.556) among qualified AL hitters.

Cruz won AL Player of the Week honors twice last season with the Orioles, on June 2 and Sept. 8, and once with the Rangers on May 24, 2010.

After going 1-for-15 with no RBIs in his first four games with Seattle, Cruz has gone on a tear. Heading into Monday’s series opener with the Astros at Safeco Field, he’s leading the Majors with eight home runs while hitting .354 (17-for-48) with 14 RBIs and a 1.258 OPS.

Cruz is the first player in the Majors with eight home runs in the first 12 games of the season since Alex Rodriguez did the same in 2007 for the Yankees on his way to a 54-homer, 156-RBI MVP season.

Cruz is the first Mariner to win AL Player of the Week honors since Kyle Seager was selected on June 29 last season. Seager earned the award twice last year (also on April 27), while Felix Hernandez also was selected on June 8.

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