The return of Benoit, who pitched in a game for the first time since April 21, changes the bullpen strategy for manager Scott Servais.

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BALTIMORE — Joaquin Benoit took the mound in a game for the first time since April 21. It was a major step for him and the Mariners’ injury-plagued bullpen.

“It felt weird,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been on the mound.”

Brought in to protect a 5-1 lead against the Orioles, Benoit made things interesting. He loaded the bases with one out — walking two and giving up a single.

The veteran right-hander escaped the jam, allowing one run on a fielder’s-choice ground ball from Adam Jones and getting the dangerous Chris Davis to fly out to end the inning.

“I was all over the place, but on the plate,” Benoit said.

It wasn’t unexpected considering the time he spent on the disabled list because of a strained shoulder and no rehab outings to find his feel.

“Benoit was a little rusty, and we expected that,” manager Scott Servais said. “It was great that we had the lead that we did when we put him out there. But it was great to see him out there, it really allows us to do some other things in the sixth and seventh inning like we did today.”

Benoit said his shoulder was sore after throwing 29 pitches. He won’t be available Friday at Cincinnati. Servais said Benoit won’t throw back-to-back days “any time soon” until he builds up arm stamina. Benoit understands.

“It’s baby steps,” Benoit said. “But I will be all right.”

Thursday offered a glimpse at how Benoit’s presence changes the bullpen strategy. With starter Nathan Karns not feeling well and giving the Mariners just five innings, Servais was able to use Nick Vincent in the sixth and seventh innings and Vidal Nuno for a left-on-left matchup before turning to Benoit in the eighth.

Cruz to play outfield at Reds

With the interleague games in Cincinnati, the plan is for Nelson Cruz to play all three games in right field because there is no designated hitter in National League ballparks.

“We’ll kind of take it day to day,” Servais said. “But we need his bat, obviously. He’s a big part of our lineup. They’re throwing a left-hander on Saturday, so we’ll mix and match in left field.”

That means on Saturday against Reds lefty John Lamb, Franklin Gutierrez likely will start in left field and Dae-Ho Lee at first base.

Good baserunning by Cano

With a leadoff double in the sixth inning, Robinson Cano has hit safely in 16 of his past 17 games and is batting .392 with a 1.076 OPS in that span.

But his biggest play came just after the double, when he was able to tag up on Cruz’s fly ball to center and advance to third with only one out. It wasn’t a deep fly ball, but Adam Jones was retreating on the play, and Cano — not exactly fleet of foot — read the situation properly and moved up a base.

“We’ve been telling these guys you have to push the envelope some,” Servais said. “It changed the entire inning.”

After doing that, the Orioles chose to walk Kyle Seager and face Adam Lind, who hit a home run.