(1090 The Fan) —  The Mariners return home Thursday after a highly-successful road trip in which the team climbed back above .500 by winning eight of ten games away from home.

The Kansas City Royals are the first visitors for the upcoming homestand — a team that has only won two of its last seven.

While the Royals’ offensive stats are on par with those of the Mariners, Kansas City is one of the more threatening clubs when it comes to runners on bases. The Royals are second in the American League with 26 stolen bases on the year. Seattle has recorded 15 stolen bases and has been caught stealing 11 times.

Pitching Preview

By Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

Hisashi Iwakuma (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Hisashi Iwakuma (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Thursday: H. Iwakuma (1-0, 5.40 ERA, .250 BAA, 3 SO, 1 BB) vs. D. Duffy (1-2, 2.19 ERA, .167 BAA, 13 SO, 7 BB)
Iwakuma is making his second start of the season after debuting in Houston last weekend. He got to 81 pitches (56 strikes) so he should be ready to approach the 10-pitch mark. The right-hander lacked his usual plus stuff against the Astros, as it was clear his arm strength isn’t where it needs to be just yet. His fastball sat 87-88 mph – he’s averaged just under 90 on his fastball in his two years in the states – but he did pound the strike zone, per usual, and flashed the above-average kitchen sink that includes a splitter, slider and curveball.

Versus a struggling Kansas City Royals lineup, Iwakuma will need to keep Norichika Aoki off the base paths and limiting the opportunities for Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and especially Eric Hosmer. The Royals struggle versus sliders, splitters and changeups, which could play right into Iwakuma’s game plan.

Reserve Justin Maxwell has had some success against Iwakuma in limited chances, collecting two extra-base hits and a walk in seven trips to the plate. Mike Moustakas (1-for-3) has the only other hits off Iwakuma in a Royals uniform. In his only start versus the Royals last September, he held Kansas City to four hits and a walk over eight shutout innings. He struck out nine in that game.

Duffy is making his second start of the year, too, after making six relief appearances in dominant fashion. The southpaw throws hard, sitting 93-97 mph, though he’s mostly 92-95 as a starter and has yet to show an ability to sustain his fastball command for six-plus innings. Duffy also offers the occasional two-seamer to go with an average 76-79 mph curveball and a low-to-mid 80s changeup.

Duffy is likely to be on a pitch count of about 90 pitches after throwing 75 Saturday at home versus Detroit.

Kyle Seager (2-for-2), Brad Miller (1-for-3, triple) and Robinson Cano (3-for-6, HR) have hit Duffy in the few plate appearances against him, but this may be another chance for Lloyd McClendon to use his right-handed lineup that includes both Stefen Romero and Cole Gillespie flanking Michael Saunders in the outfield.

Brandon Maurer (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Brandon Maurer (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Friday: B. Maurer (1-0, 6.92 ERA, .283 BAA, 10 SO, 5 BB) vs. J. Vargas (2-1, 3.50 ERA, .267 BAA, 26 SO, 10 BB)
Maurer continues to struggle throwing strikes consistently and as a result left-handed batters have torched to the tune of a .381 average (8-for-21) with two home runs and two doubles. On the flip side, Maurer has held rigfht-handed batters to a .219/.286/.313 triple-slash (7-for-32), thanks to Maurer’s slider and ability to pound the outer edge of the zone to his glove side. Until he can effectively come in on right-handed batters and command his weapons versus lefties better, including the curveball and changeup, Maurer will struggle to get through the lineup more than once or twice, despite No. 2 starter raw stuff.

He’s pitching comfortably at 93 mph and though the slider, his best pitch, has been effective, he’s not getting the depth on it he did in the past and it’s been quite firm at 88-89 mph, suggesting an adjustment is necessary.

The bad news for Maurer is that Hosmer, Gordon, Aoki and Moustakas represent the left-handed crew  for the Royals and they are the ones expected to the damage for Kansas City. Moustakas has struggled something fierce early this season, however, and he’s 0-for-4 against Maurer. Hosmer is 2-for-4 with a double and two strikeouts and Butler is 2-for-4. Again, Aoki, KC’s leadoff hitter, is the key, and it’s worth noting he’s batting significantly better versus left-handed pitching (.393/.452/.500) than right-handed pitching in 2014 (.226/.284/.290), a trend that isn’t new to this season.

Vargas, the former Mariners lefty, continues to post solid results wherever he goes, but there are signs of decline in performance, despite his first five starts this season being vintage Vargas.

He’s served up three long balls and 12 earned runs in his past two starts, and his fastball velocity is down to about 86 mph. He sat 87-88 consistently with Seattle in 2012 and with the Los Angeles Angels a year ago, but showed signs of fading late last summer, yielding five homers, 43 total hits and 22 earned in 35 2/3 innings.

Vargas, when he gets in trouble, tends to overthrow his changeup – he’s always done that, but he’s up to 30.6 percent changeups this season, a career high. He hasn’t had his curveball much this season and a two-pitch starter without a plus fastball and a way to induce ground balls will eventually crack and struggle, as has Vargas his last two outings.

When he’s painting the corners, he’s a difficult and frustrating opponent and he’s consistent in avoiding high walk totals, forcing batters to earn their way on base. The Mariners should not stack right-handed batters against Vargas. That’s a mistake many managers have made the past five years, and one clubs made during Jamie Moyer’s better days.

Sticking with the left-handed lineup neutralizes Vargas’ best pitch, the changeup, and forces him to throw more fastballs and breaking balls, creating more predictable plate appearances. Lefties batted .327/.357/.432 off Vargas a year ago, and sitting their lefties in favor of lesser batters just because they are right-handed options isn’t necessarily the better decision.

Robinson Cano has tormented Vargas in their careers, collecting nine hits in 20 at-bats, including two doubles. Ackley is 3-for-6 with a double off his former teammate and Miller has a pair of safeties in three trips. Starting an outfield of Stefen Romero, Michael Saunders and Dustin Ackley, with the regular infield is probably the best alignment.

Chris Young (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Chris Young (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Saturday: C. Young (2-0, 3.03 ERA, .200 BAA, 15 SO, 16 BB ) vs. Y. Ventura (2-1, 2.00 ERA, 52 SO, 17 BB)
For Young, it’s simple. Sitting mid-80s with his fastball forces him to command it well, and he’s doing that enough to get by, but at some point his spotty control and the gopher ball are going to hurt him. He was solid last time out, however, jabbing around the edge of the strike zone with all of his offerings, rarely catching the middle of the plate up. He’s giving batters different looks with the fastball, including up and out of the zone to change the eye level, and down in and out of the zone with good plane generated from Young’s 6-foot-10 frame and long arms.

Young is throwing tons of fastballs and has backed off his slider a bit, rarely offering the curveball and changeup, which are both fringy at best, anyway. While lefties have hit three of the four home runs he’s surrendered, he’s found a way to keep them at bey, despite clubs loading their lineups with them when Young takes the mound.

If he can avoid high walk totals and keep the ball in the ballpark, he’ll give Seattle a chance in this one, and Safeco will lend him hand with the latter. Aoki is 2-for-3 with two doubles off Young, but the Royals have but six total at-bats off the veteran, which usually favors the pitcher early.

Ventura, just 22 until next month, has been dominant thus far, sitting 95-97 with his four-seam fastball and wiping out batters with a curveball and changeup. He’s done it mostly with the heater, though, and has mixed in a 94-95 mph cutter just for an added wrinkle.

Ventura can get wild at times, as he displayed at home versus the Twins and at Houston in back-to-back starts in April. Since then, however, he’s issued but four free passes in 19 innings, reminding some of a young Bartolo Colon. In limited experience versus Seattle, he’s held the current M’s roster hitless in 11 at-bats.

The Royals aren’t likely to allow Ventura to go too far beyond 100 pitches – his season high is 113 – so if the M’s can make him work early they’ll have a shot to get into the Royals bullpen, which has balance and loads of high-velocity options, but tends to put runners on base via the walk and make things interesting.

Roeinis Elias (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Roeinis Elias (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Sunday: R. Elias (3-2, 3.27 ERA, .235 BAA, 37 SO, 19 BB) vs. J. Guthrie (2-2, 3.91 ERA, .254 BAA, 23 SO, 11 BB)
Elias has been solid, impressing in all seven starts and flashing a dominant curveball, maturity and tremendous fight when he doesn’t have his best command. He’s handling left-handed batters and whiles he’s allowed three home runs to righties, they’re batting just .241 with a .353 slugging percentage off the Cuban.

More strikes early in the count will help Elias get to his curveball in the right situations, and below-average command of his fastball has forced him to throw his breaking ball a lot, probably too much – nearly one quarter of the time. He’s using his changeup well, despite it being a work-in-progress, and mixing in a few two-seamers and cutters to create different looks.

He’s shown he can battle with runners on base and when he doesn’t have his best stuff. When he does have it going, well, the New York Yankees can tell you how that looks.

Guthrie, now 35, is a kitchen-sink starter who throws just one-third fastballs and offers a sinker, slider, curveball and changeup. He lacks a strikeout pitch, but the sinker helps him induce a decent percentage of ground balls (43 percent) and when he avoids hitter’s counts he’s a solid innings eater for Kansas City.

Cano is 11-for-43 (.256) with three home runs versus Guthrie and Ackley has four hits in eight at-bats, including three doubles. Justin Smoak is 5-for-15 with three long balls off the Roseburg, Oregon native, so Sunday may be the day the first baseman moves into the cleanup spot.

Sandmeyer Says
Many are still in shock the Mariners, who lost their eighth straight game back on April 22, have been able to recover so quickly. A wildly successful 7-2 road trip, a record above .500 and renewed enthusiasm sets them up for a reasonable home stand that starts with the first of four against a Kansas City team that has had trouble swinging the bats.

I don’t expect a lot of runs this series — by either team. Back in Seattle, still cold at night this time of year, a pitchers park, and two offenses that don’t always hit. Yep — as precarious as it may sound — the focus goes on the bullpen in this series.

Yoervis Medina is shaky at best as the current right-handed set up man. I’d still like to see Danny Farquhar earn that role — and I expect him to eventually get it — given that Lloyd McClendon has been willing to acknowledge (after a longer period of time than I would prefer) when a better candidate surfaces for a job.

It’s easy to make fun of Fernando Rodney, but his last two saves have been dominant. Low pitch count, batters in order (outside of the sun double to center over Saunders) and good command of his fastball/changeup combination. The cocked hat and the arrow shooting stuff is a sideshow — but the guy has been able to put it together his last couple opportunities. Credit to him.

Don’t expect a ton out of outfielder James Jones. Everybody loves the new kid at school, but he’s an extra outfielder at best — given his current skill set — and it’s important to be realistic with expectations. We all love the kid’s speed on the base paths and defensive range, but he is not ready to be an everyday big-league hitter, and this will become apparent if McClendon tries to “pull an Almonte” — i.e. roll him out there in the lineup every day no matter what.

Finally, I cannot wait to see the Royals phenom Yordano Ventura, who starts against the Mariners Saturday night, and has been clocked at 100 MPH. In his season debut, he hit 103 MPH, and that’s just plain stupid. I know the speed guns differ in just about every park — but still — pretty incredible.

Go M’s.

Key Notes

By Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
The Mariners enter the 4-game set with Kansas City as one of the most potent offensive lineups with runners in scoring position. Seattle is batting .264 (4th in AL) with a .457 slugging percentage (2nd in AL) with runners in scoring position. With runners in scoring position and two outs, the M’s lead the American League with a .272 batting average and .488 slugging percentage. Of the club’s 140 runs scored, 46 have been plated with runners in scoring position and two outs …  in May (8 games), Seattle has scored 43 runs on 67 hits. Only 22 of those hits went for extra-bases, magnifying their performance with runners in scoring position … Smoak has 22 RBI on the season, ranking No. 10 in the circuit. He did not get to 22 RBI in 2013 until July 13 … Smoak’s nine doubles rank tied for No. 16 in the AL, with teammate Seager, among others … Speaking of Seager, the third baseman is batting .353/.421/.745 since April 23 (13 games), with five homers and five doubles … The Mariners bullpen sports a 3.30 ERA, No. 4 in the AL, and rank No. 6 in batting average against at .239. It may seem like some of the struggling arms are ‘killing’ them, but they really haven’t. Tom Wilhelmsen hasn’t allowed a run in six straight appearances, giving up but three hits in eight innings in that stretch. Walks have been an issue for Wilhelmsen this year, but he’s issued only one in his past 18 batters faced.

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