Mariners

Mariners at Astros: Series Preview

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Hisashi Iwakuma will make his 2014 MLB debut Saturday versus the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Hisashi Iwakuma will make his 2014 MLB debut Saturday versus the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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(1090 The Fan) — The Seattle Mariners now have won five of six since their 8-game losing streak and are creeping up on the .500 mark entering the series at Houston. The Astros, since they took two of three at Safeco Field during the Mariners’ last homestand, have dropped four of their last six and have plated just 18 runs during that span while allowing nearly seven runs per contest.

Seattle (12-14) is fresh off an abbreviated 2-game sweep of the New York Yankees in The Bronx, thanks in large part to starting pitching. The Astros (9-19) have an unsettled rotation and bullpen, but one the M’s could not crack the last time the two clubs met.

Pitching Matchups
Friday: RHP Felix Hernandez (3-1, 2.40 ERA, .196 BAA, 47 SO, 7 BB) vs. RHP Brad Peacock (0-2, 5.95 ERA, .278 BAA, 18 SO, 17 BB)
Hernandez is coming off what can be described as two sub par outings, though that’s a relative term to the M’s ace considering he allowed five earned runs on 12 hits in 13 innings over the two starts. The extra day’s rest, forced by the rain in New York and manager Lloyd McClendon’s correct insistence on using Roenis Elias on regular rest and allowing Hernandez one more day, could make a difference.

The King’s fastball velocity is closer to where it was in 2012 than a year ago, but the sinking two-seamer has flattened out in his past 20 innings or so, which explains the ground ball rate sinking below 50 percent. He was without his changeup last time out versus Houston, but the Astros would be wise to be on seeing it plenty in this one.

Hernandez has used his slider and curveball more in the changeup’s absence, and it’s worked well. It’s nice to have four plus pitches.

The current Astros haven’t done a lot versus Hernandez in their careers, but Jose Altuve is 3-for-98 with just ine punchout and Matt Dominguez homered and doubled in the Safeco series last month. Slugger Chris Carter may sit this one out, having fanned four times in eight trips to the plate against King Felix.

Peacock, making just his third start of 2014, is a fastball-slider-curveball-changeup guy and he’s throwing tons of offspeed stuff this year — his fastball rate sits at 47.5 percent for the year, though he’s throwing it at a higher rate as a starter.

The slider, an 81-84 mph late-breaker, is his best pitch when he finishes out front with it. His 91-93 mph four-seam fastball is a bit true, partially explaining why he doesn’t throw it a lot, which lends credence to his use of two breaking balls. His curveball is of the knuckle-curve variety, sitting in the 75-77 mph range, though it’s best at 73-75. The knuckle-curve, by nature, is difficult to command and Peacock is no outlier in that regard. His low-80s changeup is well below average and lacks sink, basically serving as an occasional show-me pitch versus left-handed batters.

Peacock has been touched up by some of the current Mariners, including Dustin Ackley (3-for-8, 2B), Brad Miller (3-for-6), Kyle Seager (3-for-11, HR) and Justin Smoak (3-for-8, 2B, 2-BB). Notice all four are left-handed batters, a sign that Peacock’s command and two breaking balls isn’t making up for a poor changeup versus opposite-handed bats.

Saturday: RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (2014 MLB Debut) vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel (2-1, 3.56 ERA, .267 BAA, 30 SO, 8 BB)
Iwakuma is likely set for somewhere between 95-95 pitches after throwing 76 in his final rehab stint for Triple-A Tacoma. He wasn’t necessarily sharp, but he did sit 87-89 mph and his pitches were all available and effective in terms of movement.

The right-hander is one of the more gifted pitchers in baseball, using four-seam fastballs, sinkers, splitters, sliders and true curveballs to keep hitters guessing, off balance and off a fastball that averages are 90 mph. Everything moves late and when he’s right he commands them all well and to all quadrants of the strike zone. He’ll induce ground balls with the sinker and splitter and isn’t afraid to throw the curveball to get ahead in the count.

In short, Iwakuma pitches backwards, setting up his fastball with everything else, though with two strikes his splitter is a true out pitch and one he goes to often.

Dominguez is 4-for-11 (all singles) off Iwakuma, as is Altuve, but Carter (2-for-12, 6 SO) and Jason Castro (2-for-11, all singles, 4 SO) have struggled. Iwakuma has yet to face the majority of the Astros lineup, which is advantage Mariners if Iwakuma has his stuff Saturday.

Keuchel beat Seattle in the first series between to the two clubs, allowing just two earned runs on six hits over six innings. He struck out eight and walked just one in that start, and has been solid in each of his last four outings, pounding the zone and making few mistakes.

The southpaw needs to stay down with his 88-90 mph fastball, but he will use a two-seamer an occasional cutter to spread the strike zone from top to bottom, inside and outside. His slider is a pitch he uses too often, but it helps him get in on right-handed batters, setting up an average 79-81 mph curveball and low-80s changeup.

McClendon may choose to sit Ackley (0-for-7, 4 SO vs. Keuchel), but Stefen Romero went 2-for-3 off him at Safeco and had three quality plate appearances, including a double down the left field line. Corey Hart (3-for-9, 2 HR) and Kyle Seager (3-for-10) are likely to see Keuchel for a second time.

Sunday: RHP Brandon Maurer (0-0, 6.75 ERA, .281 BAA, 7 SO, 3 BB) vs. RHP Colin McHugh (2-0, 0.59 ERA, .100 BAA, 19 SO, 3 BB)
Maurer struggled his last time out and still is likely to be limited to 80-85 pitches. Maurer has four pitches — fastball, slider, curveball, changeup — and while the change still is a work in progress, there’s legitimate improvement there and he threw a couple of big-league quality changeups against the Rangers last weekend.

Hes also using more two-seam fastball to create more movement, sitting 91-94 mph with the pitch and dialing up the four-seamer to as high as 97. His best pitch is a sharp-breaking slider that he didn’t have all of versus Texas but flashed in Miami. It’s a put-away pitch, but is nearly useless if he can’t get ahead in counts.

Maurer’s curveball is useful versus left-handed batters, aiding the changeup to keep lefties from sitting dead red and teeing off. Command and overall control has been a problem for Maurer the past two years, but he’s emphasized staying on top of his pitches better and could be due for a breakthrough start if he can repeat his delivery and throw more strikes.

McHugh has been terrific in two starts, shutting out the Mariners April 22 and tossing 8 2/3 innings of 1-hit baseball against the division-leading Athletics five days later.

The home-run ball was a problem for McHugh in his first stints in the big leagues with the Mets and Astros, but has yet to serve up a four-bagger in 15 1/3 innings. That is going to change, perhaps Sunday, as his stuff induces fly balls and strikeouts rather than ground balls.

Up to 95 mph with his fastball, McHugh also employs a two-seamer to go with his plus slider and average curveball. He’s missing bats with fastball life and command right now, reminiscent of Brett Tomko or Todd Stottlemyre — when he hits his spots, he’s awfully tough.

He yielded but three hits to Seattle the first time, but Willie Bloomquist (2-for-3) didn’t have much trouble seeing the ball out of his hand. We may see Mike Zunino get the day off, both because it’s a day game after a night game, but also because McClendon likes to play matchup and uses batter-pitcher results, even small samples. Zunino struck out twice against McHugh at Safeco Field.

– Jason A. Churchill

Sandmeyer Says
In many ways, the 12-14 start for the Mariners is miraculous. Three-fifths of its rotation injured, they didn’t hit for nearly three weeks straight, an 8-game losing streak in April and the manager was/is still figuring out how to handle his bullpen and lineup. The fact this team is only two games under .500 is incredible if you stop and think about it.

Finally, we’ll be able to see Felix and Kuma go one-two in the rotation. Finally, it appears Lloyd McClendon has softened his stance on Abraham Almonte. Finally, Seager and Cano are hitting at the same time — which leaves a lot to look forward to in May.

From a practical standpoint, the schedule softens. May includes only 13 road games (six against teams like Houston and Minnesota), 17 home games (including a pair of four-game series against the likes of Kansas City and Houston) and the second road trip of the month includes two off days (May 15 and May 19) which will come in handy, no doubt.

I’ll go out on a limb and predict a few more long balls from Cano — starting with a few in the Houston series this weekend. When we flip the calendar to June, Cano will have 7-8 home runs, and everyone should be happy. He hit seven last May as a member of the Yankees — and now that he’s settled in as a Mariner — hitting line drives — a few more of them will leave the yard.

Key Notes
Robinson Cano looks to extend a 9-game hitting streak in which he’s batting .371. The second baseman has hits in 22 of 26 games and leads the club with eight multi-hit efforts … Since an 0-for-9 start, Michael Saunders is batting .296/.368w/.500 with two doubles, a triple and a home run … Speaking of poor starts and hot bats, Kyle Seager is batting .296/.356/.593 in his past 15 games following a 4-for-33 start to the season … The M’s are now 7-0 in 2014 following a day off .. Seattle has won five of their last six games at Houston.

On this date (May 2) in 2002, Mike Cameron belted four long balls in a game at Chicago, becoming the 13th player to accomplish the feat. If you remember his final plate appearance, he flied out deep to right field in his quest for No. 5 … In that same game, Bret Boone and Cameron became the first teammates to hit back-to-back home runs in the same inning … On this date in 2003, Edgar Martinez singled to left field in Chicago to record his 2000th career hit.

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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