One week to go, it’s getting to crunch time

When Sunday’s games conclude, there will be one week remaining in the regular season. Seven days to determine some close races. And none are closer than the American League’s Wild Card chase, where the A’s, Royals and Mariners were all within one game of each other entering Sunday’s play with two berths at stake.

“This is a sprint now,” said Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon. “This is fun.  Being tired or slumping, all that stuff goes out the window. Your intensity and adrenaline level are so high because of what’s at stake.”

The Indians appear to be the one team still with a shot at pushing into the three-team race as they’re three games back of Seattle going into Sunday’s play and will finish off a suspended game on Monday before their regularly scheduled series opener with the Royals, with Cleveland holding a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the 10th.

Assuming the Indians don’t blow that lead, the Royals will lose a half-game there, so Kansas City essentially is tied already with Seattle and the Indians will be 2 ½ behind Seattle. But unless the Indians win out, they’ll be hard pressed to make up that distance if the three teams above them win even three or four of their remaining games.

Here’s how Seattle’s primary competition lines up going into Sunday’s games. Three of these clubs will make the playoffs, with either Kansas City or Detroit winning the AL Central and then two of the remaining teams taking the Wild Card spots.

Detroit (86-68): at Kansas City (1), White Sox (3), Minnesota (4).

A’s (84-70): Philadelphia (1), Anaheim (3), at Texas (4).

Royals (83-70): Detroit, at Cleveland (3), at White Sox (3), plus Monday conclusion of suspended game Royals trail 4-2 in bottom of 10th vs. Indians.

Mariners (83-71): At Houston (1), at Toronto (4), Anaheim (3).

Indians (80-74): at Minnesota (1), Royals (3), Rays (3), plus Monday conclusion of suspended game Indians lead 4-2 in bottom of 10th vs. Royals..

Yankees (79-75): Toronto (1), Baltimore (4), at Boston (3).

McClendon explains decision to sit Ackley

Ackley, Dustin 2As the Mariners hit the final stretch run for their first postseason berth in 13 years, Dustin Ackley is feeling healthy again, as evidenced by a pair of home runs in Friday’s 10-5 victory over the Astros at Minute Maid Park. Ackley said the past three days are the first time in awhile he hasn’t had to favor his ankle.

“Just going on and off the field, going after balls in the gaps, running the bases or whatever, it’s nice to not have to worry about it,” he said. “It feels really great and I’m just hoping that continues the rest of the year.”

But manager Lloyd McClendon is being careful, knowing Ackley needed surgery on bone spurs in the same ankle two years ago and that he’s still favoring that foot to some degree. So McClendon didn’t have Ackley in Saturday’s lineup against tough Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel, choosing to get Corey Hart’s right-handed bat in at DH and moving Logan Morrison to left field.

“Nobody sees the big picture but the manager,” McClendon said. “You have to realize we travel on a plane and that usually cause problems in itself when you’ve got a bum ankle or something. And it was a quick turnaround and he was limping a little bit last night. It concerned me a little. I really want him for [Sunday’s game against right-hander Collin McHugh] and he doesn’t hit this guy very well at all (0-for-7 vs. Keuchel). So it’s a chance to get him off his ankle. And we do have that turf (in Toronto at the end of the trip) and that scares the heck out of me.”

Ackley feels he’s “turned the corner” with his ankle and says it’s only sore in the mornings now when he first gets going. But he understands McClendon’s decision-making process.

“We had a meeting a couple weeks ago when he said if you’re not in the lineup, don’t let that be a surprise to you,” Ackley said. “We’ve got a lot of guys here that can play in big situations and Keuchel can be tough on lefties. But he can be tough on righties, too. So I’m just going to be ready whenever my name is called.”

McClendon also wanted to get Hart’s bat in the lineup against Keuchel, knowing he was 3-for-12 with two home runs off the southpaw in his career, so he shifted Morrison to left for the day.

“Short porch, Hart has two home runs off this guy and LoMo is probably a better defensive outfielder than Corey,” McClendon said. “It keeps Corey off his legs, but is also an opportunity to get his bat in in this short ballpark against the left-hander. It just makes sense.”

Ackley’s opposite field homer in the third inning Friday was a positive sign, but he took even more from an eighth-inning shot he yanked out to right field.

“Being able to pull the ball, that was something when it was hurting pretty bad that I wasn’t able to do,” said Ackley, who set a new career high with his 13th bomb of the year. “I wasn’t able to drive and really rotate off my backside, which is something you’ve got to be able to do. You can’t just go up there and not rotate. That’s pretty much the name of the game as far as hitting goes. To be able to do that consistently now and not have to worry about it, it’s a lot more comforting than before.”

Walker getting head start on rotation return in Houston

Mariners at RoyalsRookie Taijuan Walker flew ahead to Houston on Thursday as the Mariners looked to give the young right-hander a little rest for his Friday start, with Seattle not expected to arrive at its hotel in Houston until 5 or 6 a.m. on Friday thanks to a night getaway game concluding a four-game series at Angel Stadium.

Walker is returning to the rotation for the first time since July 23, filling the vacancy created by elbow tightness for rookie lefty Roenis Elias. Walker will start the series opener against the Astros’ Brad Peacock as Seattle continues an 11-game road trip that eventually wraps up in Toronto.

The hard-throwing 22-year-old is Seattle’s top pitching prospect and ranked No. 6 among all prospects by He made three starts earlier this season after getting a late start due to shoulder problems in Spring Training, but spent most of the second half with Triple-A Tacoma before being called up Sept. 1 to help bolster the bullpen.

Walker has a 1.93 ERA in three relief appearances this month (two earned runs in 9 1/3 innings) and is 1-2 with a 2.96 ERA in six outings for the year.

It’s been a challenging season for the youngster, who was expected to make the season-opening rotation until he arrived at camp with a sore shoulder and subsequently battled with some command issues when he did get a shot in Seattle. But he’ll have a chance now to show what he can do in at least two starts – including next Wednesday in Toronto — with the Mariners pushing for their first postseason appearance since 2001.

“Obviously with the concerns we have with Elias, it’s an opportunity for him to step up and move into the rotation,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I think in a lot of ways it’s a real good experience for him. Obviously this has been a tough year for him in a lot of different ways. I think he’s starting to grow up a little bit from a mental standpoint and starting to ‘get it’, so to speak. This is good for him.”

McClendon has taken a tough-love approach with Walker this season, pushing him hard and speaking critically at times of his performances in Triple-A Tacoma. But he said he likes what he’s seen of late from Walker on the mound and with his work.

“There’s a natural progression that he needs to take and I think he’s starting to take it,” McClendon said. “Sometimes young players can believe the hype that you guys throw on them and it can get in the way of their development. I think he’s finally got to the point where he’s put that aside and he’s going out and concentrating on what is going to make him better. And that’s healthy progression, healthy growth, from a pitching standpoint.”

Elias was scheduled to pitch Sunday, but Walker has been slotted into Friday’s game since his last outing was two innings on Sunday against the A’s and this allows Chris Young and Hisashi Iwakuma to be pushed back to Saturday and Sunday in Houston at a time of the season when the extra day can be beneficial.

“He slots right in and the other two guys get an extra day, so it just makes sense,” McClendon said. “They need [the rest]. They all need it. This is a grind.”

Walker will be facing a familiar foe in Houston, as three of his six career starts have been against the Astros (2-0, 2.81 ERA), including his lone win this year in his season debut at Minute Maid Park in late June.

Elias flew home to Seattle for an MRI on his elbow Wednesday, but no results of the test were available yet.

Elias headed home for MRI, could be done for year

Elias, RoenisRookie southpaw Roenis Elias will fly back to Seattle on Thursday to have an MRI test on his left elbow after experiencing some stiffness in his last start and likely is done for this season, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon indicated on Wednesday.

Elias has tigntness in his flexor bundle, according to the club, which hopes to learn more after the 25-year-old returns to Seattle.

Elias said he felt some discomfort after throwing a changeup, but didn’t call McClendon to the mound. Instead, the manager and trainer saw something of concern and his night was done. Now the final two starts of Elias’ season are in jeopardy with McClendon saying Wednesday he’s “most likely” finished.

Elias is 10-12 with a 3.85 ERA in 29 starts and his 163 2/3 innings are the third-most of any rookie in the Majors this year behind the 165 of Kansas City’s Yordano Ventura and Tampa Bay’s Jake Odoorizzi. He’s 3-4 with a 2.31 ERA in 10 starts since the All-Star break, but the Mariners had been carefully monitoring his workload and giving him extra rest whenever possible.

“He’s had a heck of a year,” McClendon said. “He’s had a tremendous second half. He’s done a wonderful job and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. He’s everything we thought he was going to be.”

Elias had been slated to start again Sunday in Houston, but McClendon said he’s not sure yet who’ll fill that spot and indicated the rotation could be juggled following the Angels series finale Thursday. Rookie Taijuan Walker, the Mariners top pitching prospect, is the logical fill-in as he’s been working in the bullpen since being added as a September callup.

Walker has thrown three games in relief since Sept. 1, allowing three runs and 10 hits with two walks and seven strikeouts over 9 1/3 innings to put his season ERA at 2.96 in six outings. The Mariners wouldn’t necessarily have to wait until Sunday to slot Walker in since he’s fresh, having thrown just two innings since Sept. 7.

It’s possible they could pitch Walker in any of the upcoming games in Houston and give the other starters an extra day of rest as the club sets up for its final stretch run.

McClendon says M’s will fight through current funk

McClendon LloydDespite a three-game losing streak and just two wins in their last eight games during the most-crucial stretch of the season, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said Tuesday his young club isn’t pressing in the wake of Monday’s 8-1 loss to the Angels to open an 11-game road trip.

The Mariners certainly could use some timely hitting as they’ve gone 0-for-18 with runners in scoring position in their last two games heading into Tuesday’s battle with an Angels club whose magic number for clinching the American League West is down to three games.

Seattle entered the night two games back of the Royals for the final AL Wild Card spot, but McClendon said there’s no cloud gathering over his club.

“They’re not tight. They’re just going through a funk,” he said. “We just have to keep battling and fighting our way through it. The Oakland A’s went through it and we didn’t think a thing about it. We were happy about it. And I’m sure they’re happy about our little funk. It happens. We just have to keep fighting and grinding it out and we’ll come around.”

The Mariners were 71-91 last season and haven’t been in the postseason since 2001, so they’re in new territory heading into the final two weeks of the season with a playoff berth in sight.

“Given what Seattle was going through the last 10-12 years, if I’d have said leaving Spring Training that on Sept. 16 we’d be two games out of the Wild Card, would you take it?” McClendon said. “I don’t think there’s anybody associated with the Seattle Mariners who would have said, ‘No, we don’t want that.’

“You have to keep things in perspective and look at the big picture. My guys have had a fantastic run,” he said. “We don’t want to look back down that road because it was a little shaky at times, but we can see the finish line and we’re going to keep charging ahead.”

Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who’ll take the ball in Thursday’s series finale against Jered Weaver, said the players are certainly in step with McClendon’s belief that Monday was a bad game, but just needs to be forgotten as the focus shifts forward.

“We’ve got a good feeling,” Hernandez said. “Yesterday we got killed, but today we’re ready to play. We’re fine. We just have to continue fighting and we’ll be okay.”

Felix is Mariners nominee for Clemente Award

Felix smilingFelix Hernandez has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for the past decade, but the Mariners hurler also has had significant impact in the community, a fact recognized by his nomination for the 2014 Roberto Clemente Award.

Hernandez is the Mariners nominee for the prestigious award, which recognizes a Major League player who best represents the game through positive contributions on and off the field, including sportsmanship and community involvement.

Wednesday will be the 13th annual Roberto Clemente Day in MLB, honoring the 15-time All-Star and Hall of Famer who died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1972 while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Beginning Wednesday, fans can participate in the process of selecting the national Roberto Clemente Award winner by visiting to vote for one of the 30 club nominees. Voting ends on Sunday, Oct. 6 and participating fans will be automatically registered for a chance to win a trip to the 2014 World Series, where the national winner of the Roberto Clemente Award presented by Chevrolet will be announced.

In his 10 seasons with the Mariners, Hernandez has been selected to five All-Star Games and was named the 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner. He’s having one of his best seasons yet this season, posting a 14-5 record and 2.14 ERA while helping the Mariners challenge for their first playoff berth since 2001.

Hernandez is a popular figure among players in the game and has also played a large role off the field as well. Since arriving in Seattle as a teenage phenom, Hernandez has been active with the Make-A-Wish program as well as the Mariners anti-domestic violence program known as Refuse To Abuse.

This year, Hernandez partnered with Grammy Award-winning Seattle recording artist Macklemore on the #Change the Game anti-bullying campaign that asks students to “be kind, stay positive, and support each other,” and to sign an anti-bullying pledge.

Hernandez is an advocate for the Humane Society of Seattle/King County, a non-profit animal welfare organization, and has supported numerous other local charities and non-profit organizations in the Pacific Northwest, including: Esperanza, South Park Community Center, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Special Olympics of Washington, Boys & Girls Clubs, The Martinez Foundation and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

The winner of the fan vote will receive one vote among those cast by the selection panel which includes Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, MLB Chief Operating Officer Rob Manfred, MLB Goodwill Ambassador and wife of Roberto Clemente, Vera Clemente; and representatives from Chevrolet, MLB Network,, ESPN, FOX Sports and TBS, among others.

The Mariners have produced three Clemente Award winners: Harold Reynolds in 1991, Jamie Moyer in 2003 and Edgar Martinez in 2004.

Ackley back in lineup Monday as ankle feeling better

Ackley, Dustin 2After sitting out six of the last seven games with a sore left ankle, Mariners left fielder Dustin Ackley was back in action for Monday’s series opener against the Angels and hopes he can continue playing the rest of the stretch run.

Ackley missed four games, then went 0-for-3 in Friday’s 4-2 win over the A’s before being held out of the final two games of that set. The Mariners went 1-5 in the games he missed and manager Lloyd McClendon hopes the 26-year-old is good enough to go now.

“He needs to be operational,” McClendon said. “The fact is, nobody will be 100 percent this time of year. There are going to be nicks and bumps and bruises, but you’ve got to be able to play both sides of the ball and I think he’s capable of doing that.

“I saw his BP and it was cleaner, it was better. He was getting off his backside and not hitting flat-footed, so I think he should be fine.”

Ackley said he’s back to feeling as good as he has all season with the ankle, which has been somewhat troublesome since 2012 when he needed postseason surgery to remove bone spurs.

“The last couple days I’ve felt ready,” Ackley said. “I know he probably wanted to [use me] as a last resort and didn’t do it, but the last two days I felt the best it’s felt in a long time and I’m assuming today isn’t going to be much different. It’s pretty good right now.”

Ackley has hit just .045 (1-for-22) in six games in September after batting .318 (61-for-192) in July and August. McClendon believes some of those recent struggles were related to the ankle.

”I think the last couple days where his swing got slow and he wasn’t able to catch up to the ball,” McClendon said.

Ackley says he’ll play the rest of the way as long as he feels he’s helping the club.

“Unless it’s a situation where like that last game, I was able to play, but I wasn’t able to perform like I wanted to or drive off that foot,” he said. “As long as I’m able to do that and compete and feel like I’m helping the team out, I’ll be in there as much as I can. If I feel like a liability, I’ll definitely take that into consideration.”

Rookie Carson Smith becomes newest bullpen weapon

Houston Astros v Seattle MarinersWith a fully rested bullpen that ranks first in the Majors in ERA, Lloyd McClendon had a lot of choices when starter James Paxton was pulled after six innings Thursday with a 4-2 lead against the A’s. Following a Wednesday off day, the Mariners had all their weapons ready to go in a critical game as they push for the playoffs.

So who did McClendon opt for? How about rookie right-hander Carson Smith, a September callup with all of three innings of big-league experience. And the 6-foot-6 Texan retired five straight A’s before walking a batter and being replaced with two out in the eighth.

Smith, an eighth-round Draft pick in 2011 out of Texas State University, thus becomes the latest power arm in the Mariners ‘pen as he joins a group that has posted a 2.39 ERA while going from the 29th lowest ERA in the Majors in 2013 to the best in 2014.

“He certainly adds to it,” McClendon said before Saturday’s rematch with the A’s. “He did a nice job for us yesterday. That was pretty impressive. … I just liked his sinkerball in that situation. My plan was to send him out there for one inning, but he kept pounding and getting the easy outs. It’s kind of hard to take him out.”

Smith, 24, had 10 saves and a 2.93 ERA in 39 appearances for Triple-A Tacoma this season, but this was a slightly bigger situation with a crowd of 29,090 roaring and playoff positioning riding on the outcome.

“The adrenaline was going, the crowd was going,” said Smith. “It was a good time, playing against the Oakland Athletics. It’s safe to say you call them a rival right now in this playoff push. It was a big moment and I was happy to get the job done.”

The big right-hander faced four lefties in his six-batter stint as A’s manager Bob Melvin went to his bench for a pair of pinch hitters, but that didn’t faze him either.

“I have the same confidence against lefties and righties,” Smith said. “I get to mix my changeup in a little more to lefties, so it actually gives me a little more confidence knowing I have three pitches to use instead of just two. But I know my go-to pitch is my slider and that’s going to be more effective against right-handed hitters.”

So add another weapon to McClendon’s bullpen arsenal, which has been a force all season long. Clearly the skipper isn’t afraid to use Smith in any situation, outside of the closer role held down by Fernando Rodney.

“They told me I’d be in anywhere from the third to the eighth inning,” Smith said. “I’m just going to be ready everyday if they call me. That’s my job.”

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.”


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