NEW YORK — The Mariners’ starting rotation is slowly getting back to full strength, one pitcher at a time. Club officials confirmed that right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma would make his first start of the 2014 season on Saturday night in Houston.
The return of the All-Star right-hander will be a major lift for a Mariners organization that has been riddled with injuries since spring training.
Iwakuma was the first of the casualties, suffering a strained tendon in the middle finger of his throwing hand during an offseason workout. He was shut down for the first six weeks of spring training, not allowed to even throw a baseball. The return has been a lengthy process that saw him make his first, and apparently only, rehab start last Sunday in Las Vegas with Class AAA Tacoma.
But with Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Blake Beavan all on the disabled list and Erasmo Ramirez having pitched his way back into the minors, the Mariners had few options.
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Even with only one rehab start this season and an admitted “80 percent” command and feel of his pitches, Iwakuma still probably gives the Mariners their best chance to win. He was the Mariners’ best pitcher last season, going 14-6 with a 2.66 earned-run average.
The original plan was to have Iwakuma start on Friday night. However, Wednesday’s cancellation forced that plan to be adjusted.
Manager Lloyd McClendon pushed his rotation back a day. Roenis Elias, who was scheduled to start on Wednesday, was pushed back to Thursday while Felix Hernandez was slotted for Friday.
McClendon did consider keeping Hernandez on normal rest. Mariners fans always enjoy watching Hernandez pitch in Yankee Stadium. It’s a place he’s had plenty of success. He’s 4-1 with a 1.18 ERA in six starts in the new park. But McClendon had his reasons.
“It gives him an extra day and it gives Elias an extra day,” McClendon said. “It just made sense. Felix has been taxed quite a bit. He’s pitched on regular rest for quite a while. It’s an opportunity to get him where we need him to be. His last two outings have not been sterling outings — I think you would all agree with that. This is a chance to freshen him up and get him back on the right track.”
Brandon Maurer will start Sunday and Chris Young is projected to start Monday in Oakland. The Mariners will come back around in the rotation with Elias starting on Tuesday while Hernandez and Ramirez start the doubleheader Wednesday in Oakland. The Mariners can add a 26th player for the nightcap of a doubleheader. Ramirez would be on normal rest to make that start.
• Abraham Almonte was out of the lineup Thursday. This could be a more common occurrence as he tries to recover from early struggles this season. He’s hitting just .204 (21 for 103) and has struck out a league-high 39 times.
“I’ve been moving my head a little too much at the plate,” he said. “I’ve been working on keeping my head still longer so I can see what I’m going to hit. I think that’s what causing most of my trouble is my head pulling off too quick.”
Almonte noticed it on video the last few days, particularly when he’s swinging left-handed.
On the field, he keeps a pretty even facade, but the struggles have eaten at Almonte.
“It’s tough,” he said. “They give you a chance and you want to do your best and do great every time you step on the field. … The last person that can stop believing is me.”