Getting back to .500, M’s take two of three from Astros

 After an 8-7 victory over the Houston Astros on Sunday, the Seattle Mariners suddenly find themselves with a 14-15 record and are just four games back in the American League West after winning seven of their last nine games. This is great news for the club after they were the losers of eight consecutive games leading up to the current stretch. In fact, the past ten days have in some ways been reminiscent of how the M’s started off the season with solid starting pitching and timely hitting. Third baseman Kyle Seager has been on a tear of late and brought his hit streak up to eight games after Sunday’s contest — a stretch in which he has hit all five of his home runs this season.

Let’s take a look at what’s been going right for the Mariners of late.

More Saunders, less Almonte
It would appear that Seattle has found a new leadoff hitter, at least for the time being, as Michael Saunders made his fourth consecutive start on Sunday. The Condor has eight hits in 19 at-bats over those four games including a pair of doubles and four runs batted in. It’s been a strange season for Saunders who figured to have a starting job locked up prior to Spring Training but instead had been a spot starter and late inning defensive replacement heading into this past week. That appears to be a thing of the past however, as the now suddenly displaced Abraham Almonte has been sent down to Triple-A Tacoma.

It’s been easy to knock on Almonte so far this season as he’s done little to prove he belongs in the big leagues, let alone be the starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter for the club. His .198/.248/.292 line with 40 strikeouts in 113 plate appearances was hardly an inspiring performance, but could suggest he was either trying too hard to produce or was simply overmatched in his position, or likely a combination of both. Still just 24, it’s easy to forget that Almonte only has 396 plate appearances at Triple-A under his belt, and a quick look at his minor league strikeout rates would suggest that this season’s 35.4 percent rate is slightly uncharacteristic. My thought would be that he simply needs a little more seasoning at the lower level to gain some confidence before facing major league pitching again.

There is a train of thought that hitting Almonte near the bottom of the order could be a potential solution, but manager Lloyd McClendon didn’t seem terribly fond of that idea and if Almonte truly is overmatched right now, it isn’t really going to help much. Truth be told, Saunders still appears to be the best defensive outfielder on the roster and with Stefen Romero and Cole Gillespie still around, it’s easy to see how Almonte become the odd man out. Whatever the case may be, you can’t dislike the energy and enthusiasm the young outfielder brings to the table on a regular basis, and this definitely won’t be the last you hear of him.

Iwakuma returns to the rotation
After missing the first month of the season and nearly the entirety of Spring Training, Hisashi Iwakuma made his return to action on Saturday against the Astros. The right-hander lasted 6 2/3 innings and threw 81 pitches — 56 were for strikes. He did surrender four runs, all of which were earned, on six hits and one walk, but only two of those runs came prior to the seventh inning when Seattle began to unravel a little bit as a whole. He also struck out three Astros on the night, but more importantly, didn’t show too many signs of rust. Considering he made only one minor league start before rejoining the M’s, that has to be a positive take away moving forward.

Iwakuma appeared poised on the mound and the only real defect I noticed was that his fastball was clocking in a few ticks lower than he averaged in 2013, but there’s minimal need to worry about that. Getting back into his regular routine and putting a few more starts under his belt will help get his arm strength back up to where it needs to be. One of the biggest positives from his first start is the fact that he was able to complete nearly seven innings of work in just 81 pitches. That sounds like a pitcher who hasn’t missed a beat.

Cano continuing his pace
Although he’s stuck at just one home run this season, Robinson Cano has been his regular self otherwise and has six runs batted in over his last four games. There is reason for some concern over his low power numbers at the moment — his 2014 ISO is just .081 while his career mark is .193 — but he could go on a Seager-like hot streak at any time and be sitting comfortably again statistically. Certainly playing 81 games at Safeco Field will hurt his overall power numbers to some degree, but until we have a few more months of information available, it’s tough to say just how much of a home field disadvantage is in play here.

Even though he’s already made three errors this season, he’s made ten or more in five different seasons with the New York Yankees so it’s hardly a cause for concern. Instead, enjoy watching the best second baseman in baseball make almost any defensive play look routine.

Young, Elias help steady rotation
It may be a little surprising at first, but late spring pickup Chris Young has quietly put together a decent start to his first major league campaign since 2012. In his four starts this year, he’s gone at least 5 2/3 innings in three of them, and sports a 3.04 ERA across 23 2/3 innings pitched. His peripherals — a 5.47 FIP and a 6.28 xFIP — disagree with his low earned run average however, and it’s likely that his 14 walks compared to 13 strikeouts has something to do with that. A low strikeout rate and a high walk rate has been typical of Young throughout his career, although his 5.32 walks per nine innings pitched this year is well above his 3.50 career mark. Regardless, Seattle has won the last two games he’s started, and he’s yet to be credited with a loss this season. He’s finding a way to eat innings and giving the M’s chances to win games — that’s all you can ask for from the veteran.

If you weren’t familiar with the name Roenis Elias prior to the 2014 season, you’re likely in the majority. The 25-year old left-hander has come almost out of nowhere, more specifically from the Double-A Jackson Generals, and has been rock solid in his first six major league starts. He’s pitched at least five innings in all of them and has allowed more than two runs just twice. In 35 innings overall, Elias owns a 3.09 ERA with a 3.94 FIP and a 3.83 xFIP. Like Young, he has struggled with the walk at times and has given out 16 free passes thus far, but he’s also managed to strike out 31 batters as well. It’ll be exciting to watch the rest of the season unfold for the promising young starter and just how much potential is still to be unlocked.

Seattle heads to Oakland for three days including a double-header on Wednesday to make up for the game that was postponed on April 4. Young and Elias will take the hill for Monday and Tuesday’s games while Felix Hernandez will start one of Wednesday’s games and it’s believed Erasmo Ramirez will be called up to start the other.

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Tyler Carmont

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