The Mariners' general manager indicated to Fox Sports that the outfielder will return next year.

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Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik on Sunday evening backed off comments he made to Fox Sports indicating that he expects Ichiro to return next season.

Fox reporter Jon Paul Morosi wrote that Zduriencik said that he expects Ichiro to be back with the Mariners in 2013. Ichiro, who turns 39 in October, is eligible for free agency after this season.

“He’s a big part of this team,” Zduriencik told Morosi. “He’s a franchise player here, and we have phenomenal respect for him.”

But reached by the Seattle Times on Sunday evening, Zduriencik said that he has no comment on Ichiro’s future beyond this year.

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“I would just say what we’ve said from day one. We’ve been very consistent in saying we’re not going public with anything like that,” he said. “It’s been our policy that whether we’re discussing things or not is an internal matter.”

Asked if he expects Ichiro to return next year, Zduriencik said, “What we’re trying to do is play the season and see what happens.”

Zduriencik did reiterate that he has no plans to deal Felix Hernandez at the trade deadline.

“I’ve been very consistent with this,” he said “Felix is signed for two more years. He enjoys being here, and we have no interest in trading Felix.”

Ryan joins leadoff carousel

The Mariners on Sunday unveiled their sixth different leadoff hitter this season, and this one carried a .182 batting average into the game.

For Brendan Ryan, it marked the 41st time in his career he’s started in the one hole, but the first since he joined the Mariners last season.

“I love it,” Ryan said. “It’s a fun challenge. It’s something I got to do a lot of in the minors, and a decent amount in St. Louis, especially against lefties. It’s fun. I want to be the guy that gets things going and sparks things.

“It didn’t really happen today, but if it comes up again, I’ll be ready. It’s definitely a fun challenge, and I’m pumped that Skipper gave me the opportunity.”

Ryan had one hit in four at-bats, a two-out double in the fifth. He lined out with two runners aboard in the second inning, and hit into a double play with two on to end the seventh.

Others who have led off this year for the Mariners are Chone Figgins, Ichiro, Michael Saunders, John Jaso and, most recently, Dustin Ackley, back atop the order for his second stint.

But manager Eric Wedge decided to keep Ackley on the bench against tough Rangers lefty Matt Harrison, who was holding lefties to a .178 average this year.

“I feel like Ackley’s swing is definitely heading in the right direction,” Wedge said. “That’s a tough matchup today against this kid, and I didn’t want to disturb anything with that.”

He chose Ryan, he said, because he wanted a right-hander, and Figgins hadn’t played much recently.

Montero to catch soon

Wedge said that Jesus Montero, who was at DH on Sunday, is almost ready to go behind the plate following his minor concussion. He expects Montero to catch during the four-game series in Kansas City. Franklin Gutierrez, still recovering from a more serious concussion, is progressing well and will accompany the team on the road trip (as will Erasmo Ramirez, who threw a bullpen on Sunday that went well).

“He’s doing good,” Wedge said of Gutierrez. “He had a good look in his eyes last night (Saturday) during the game and responded well. It’s a series of steps coming back from that. I really hope to ramp up his baseball activity in KC, and hopefully we can get him out soon after that, so he can go play a little bit.”

Smoak staying the course

Wedge said that he continues to see progress with Justin Smoak, and was emphatic when asked if it’s a consideration for Smoak to give up switch-hitting.

“Not with him at all. I don’t think so,” Wedge said. “There’s no question in my mind he’s a switch-hitter. When he gets it, he’s going to do it from both sides, and do it with some strength and damage.”

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