Left-hander, who starts Seattle's second opener Friday night in Oakland, has battled injury, late-season struggles and lack of run support.

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Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis was walking to the ballpark one day on the road last season when he quizzed fellow coach Jeff Datz.

“Can you name the American League leader in shutouts?” he asked.

Datz went through all the usual suspects — Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, even Felix Hernandez — before Willis revealed the answer:

Jason Vargas.

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Vargas didn’t hold on to that distinction — James Shields and Derek Holland wound up tied for the AL lead with four. But the Mariner’s three shutouts (plus a no-decision in Baltimore in which Vargas pitched nine scoreless innings of a game that went into extra innings) were next. More than Verlander, Weaver and Hernandez.

That number underscores that Vargas can be a tough day at the ballpark for opposing hitters. The left-hander, who takes the mound Friday in Oakland when the Mariners reopen the season, is a critical cog as the No. 2 starter behind Hernandez.

Vargas has battled injury, inconsistency and late-season struggles, but at age 29, he is trying to establish himself as worthy of that status. The shutouts, he said, give him confidence that he can do just that.

“It was huge for me,” Vargas said. “I would think it would be for any pitcher. I’m not young, I’m not old. At the same time, I haven’t been in the league consistently for a super long time. When I was pitching like that, I felt like I could go out and do that every time. The goal is to get closer and closer to that.”

Vargas’ 2012 season got off to a promising start with a strong effort against the A’s in their second game in Tokyo. He allowed just two hits and one run in 6-1/3 innings, but the bullpen couldn’t hold the 1-0 lead he handed off.

After flip-flopping with Hernandez in the rotation, Vargas is technically starting back-to-back games. It’s the first time a Mariners pitcher has done that against the same team since Freddy Garcia started against the Angels on Sept. 10 and Sept. 18, 2001 when the season was interrupted by the 9/11 tragedies.

Vargas starts the year with the innovation that turned around his 2011 season — a hip swivel, a la Hernandez, that he instituted in September. Vargas had been struggling in the second half for the second consecutive year, but after the move, finished strong.

“Last year, he was three different pitchers,” Willis said. “He came in as a traditional pitcher, doing what he had always done. He got to a point midseason where he kind of backed off and tried to pitch below hitting speed. And then, just in trying to create a little more balance over the rubber, during a throwing program he came up with this turn.”

Willis said the turn not only helps Vargas mechanically, but gives him more deception by hiding the ball, and also limits the running game by improving his move to first base.

“When you don’t have that blow-away stuff, you have to make adjustments,” Willis said. “You can’t stay the same, because hitters are going to do their work and figure you out. To have the ability to make those adjustments is very special.”

The beauty for Vargas is that this tweak didn’t just bring him back to par, it improved him. Following a stretch of 11 starts in which he went 1-8 with a 6.49 earned-run average from July 6 to Sept. 2, Vargas was 3-0, 2.03 in his last four starts after the motion change.

“Obviously, it wasn’t getting the job done after the All-Star break,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s because I went away from some things. I made some adjustments and it seemed to add a little bit more, rather than just fix something. It’s always nice when you can make that adjustment and get that kind of improvement.”

The rotation depth behind Hernandez is one of many questions the Mariners face this year after trading Cliff Lee, Doug Fister, Erik Bedard, Michael Pineda and Brandon Morrow since the 2009 season. After Vargas, they will send out two pitchers in their first full season, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi, then 37-year-old Kevin Millwood.

The Mariners hope that a recent weakness, their offense, will no longer be such a major liability. They led the majors with their .297 team average in spring-training games. But those games were interrupted by two counting games in Japan in which they scored just four runs in 20 innings and hit .174

Still, manager Eric Wedge has expressed confidence all spring that the Mariners will be a vastly improved offensive team. Vargas hopes so — he had the second-lowest run support in the American League last year and received two or fewer runs in 19 of his 32 starts.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry

A season in three parts
Pitcher Jason Vargas was streaky last year.
Starts W-L ERA
Opener to July 5 17 6-5 3.57
July 6 to Sept. 2 11 1-8 6.49
Sept. 3 to final game 4 3-0 2.03
Full season 32 10-13 4.25
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