Hernandez still needs to throw off a mound before the Mariners can set a date for his return to game action.

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Felix Hernandez had another encouraging throwing session on Thursday as he recovers from being hit with a line drive near his throwing elbow. He increased his number of throws off flat ground from 25 to 40, and increased his distance by about 30 to 40 feet.

“The ball came out of his hand nice,’’ pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said. “He was freer and easier today, a lot better. Now we can move forward with more intensity and distance and get to a pen.”

Hernandez needs to throw off a mound before the Mariners can set a date for his return to game action.

“That was positive today,’’ Stottlemyre said. “He’s thrown three days in a row, and you hope the swelling is out and the pain has subsided. That was good. Felix was happy.”

On Tuesday, Hernandez picked up a ball for the first time since Feb. 26, when Cubs catcher Victor Caratini ripped a line drive back to the mound, hitting near Hernandez’s throwing elbow. X-rays were negative, and Hernandez was diagnosed with a deep contusion. A week ago, general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais said separately the hope was that Hernandez would miss only one Cactus League start.

Courtesy of the Seattle Mariners


• Right-handed pitcher Shawn Armstrong, who had been designated for assignment to clear roster space for Ichiro, cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple A. He will remain in major league camp.

“I thought he made some good strides on things (bullpen coach) Brian De Lunas and Mel were working with him on mechanically,’’ Servais said. “I’m sure at some point this season he will be helping us out in Seattle. We were managing the roster, and I’m glad he’s back with us.”

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• Reliever Tony Zych continues to be hampered by shoulder discomfort and is being evaluated by doctors. Servais said there is no timetable for Zych to resume throwing

• The Mariners had hoped outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, sidelined with a hamstring injury, could return to game action this weekend, but it appears more likely to be early next week.

Dee Gordon’s strong throws to third base in Wednesday’s game continued to be a topic of conversation, particularly the one in which he gunned down the runner trying to advance on a wild pickoff.

“The crazy thing about that play, if you notice where Dee Gordon caught the ball, he was right behind second base,’’ Servais said. “That’s how he was able to throw him out. The instincts, the baseball IQ — they’re very, very high. He anticipates those type of things, having spent so much time in the middle of the field. He knows that’s been a focus of ours this spring, so he’s always looking for an opportunity. He got it yesterday. He’s very accurate, with a quick release — about the way you draw it up.”