(1090 The Fan) — While it may seem the Mariners desperately need to win the upcoming four-game, home series against the Houston Astros to be relevant after Memorial Day, Seattle is actually in decent shape when you look at the rest of the American League.

(Bare with us, “.500” is going to get a lot of mileage in this preview…)

Right now in the AL there are six teams within two games of .500; there are nine within three games of .500. By comparison, only five National League teams are three games within .500.

Entering Thursday’s game, Seattle sits a game under .500 at 22-23 — 7.5 games behind the seemingly invincible Oakland Athletics.  A year ago, however, Seattle was 20-27 and 10 games out of first place; the team was 22-30 by Memorial Day. The closest the team would get to .500 in 2013 (post-Memorial Day) would be 48-52 (four games under) on July 23 — the last win of an eight-game winning streak.

With a disabled list that is crowded right now, Seattle is in a position to launch out of mediocrity in June.

Robinson Cano, the hit machine, is doing his part to keep the team afloat: .326/.374/.433; tied for third in hits (58); tied for first in singles (44); tied for 9th in Offensive WAR (1.6).

Pitching Preview

Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
Thursday: Roenis Elias, LHP — 3-3, 3.88 ERA, .253 BAA, 46 SO, 21 BB, 53 1/2 IP vs. Jared Cosart, RHP — 3-3, 4.41 ERA, .244 BA, 33 SO, 24 BB, 49 IP
Elias is coming off a solid start in Minnesota where a three-run home run was the only significant mistake of the entire start. He’s better when he’s down in the zone with his fastball and uses his changeup to right-handed battters, something he’s gotten away from since his start in Oakland May 6.

One good sign for the lefty is the walk totals. After issuing 10 bases on balls in his final three April outings, Elias has walked just seven batters in 25 1/3 innings in May and has punched out 25 batters in that span. The long ball is still an issue, however, and the Astros are one of the better offensive clubs versus left-handed pitching, entering Thursday’s game with a .267/.323/.398 triple-slash against them this season. Yeah, surprise, surprise.

Cosart faced the Mariners April 23, allowing just two earned runs on four hits over 6 2/3 innings. He struck four and walked three. He’s a four-pitch arm with a 92-95 mph fastball with gloveside run, a hard sinker, curveball and changeup.

The sinker is the key pitch for Cosart who has induced ground balls at a high rate as a result. The Mariners, as a team, have struggled at Safeco, relying on the long ball and failing to string together enough hits to score runs. Cosart did serve up a home run to Kyle Seager in that start and Nick Franklin went 1-for-3 and went 1-for-1 against him last year, but other than that the Mariners haven’t touched Cosart. Yet.

Friday: Felix Hernandez, RHP — 5-1, 2.94 ERA, .237 BAA, 65 SO, 13 BB, 67 1/3 IP vs. Brad Peacock, RHP — 1-4, 5.20 ERA, .259 BAA, 44 SO, 30 BB, 45 IP
Hernandez is back on track after four straight mediocre outings for the M’s ace. He’s faced the Astros twice already this season — the M’s lost both starts, despite Hernandez yielding only four earned runs in 12 combined innings of work.

Jose Altuve has been a nuisance for Hernandez, collecting five hits in 12 at-bats, including two doubles, and Matt Dominguez took The King deep at Safeco and Jason Castro is 2-for-9 with a pair of doubles.

It’s all about location for Hernandez, who commanded his fastball well last time out.

Peacock is another right-hander the M’s should chase early, considering his lack of control and tendency to give up the long ball. There’s plenty of velocity in the fastball, sitting 91-93, with an above-average low-80s slider, fringy mid-70s curveball and below average changeup.

Dustin Ackley is 3-for-11 with a double versus Peacock and Brad Miller is 4-for-9 including a 2-for-5 effort last month when the M’s plated four runs off the right-hasnder on six hits and three walks, including a home run by Mike Zunino.

Seager has been a nightmare for Peacock, doubling and homering among five hits in 14 at-bats, and Justin Smoak is 3-for-10 with a double and three walks.

For Peacock to avoid similar problems, he’ll need to stay out of the middle of the plate against the M’s lefty-heavy lineup, and if his changeup is useful he’ll have a shot to get through six or seven innings with a chance at victory.

Saturday: Brandon Maurer, RHP — 1-2, 6.00 ERA, .316 BA, 13 SO, 9 BB, 24 IP vs. Dallas Keuchel, LHP — 5-2, 2.92 ERA, .235 BA, 55 SO, 12 BB, 61 2/3 IP
This is one game of the four-game set where the Astros have a significant advantage on the mound, as Maurer has pitched beyond the fifth inning just once in five starts and has allowed 31 hits in his 24 innings.

Maurer is sitting about 92 mph with his fastball, throwing more two-seamers than in years past and mixing in the changeup with more confidence. Neither pitch is big-league average, but it’s a truye four-pitch mix now, with his slider and curveball options in any count.

Concerning for Maurer is that his slider, a true plus pitch for him throughout his minor league career and last year in the big leagues, has been flat, hard and has been much less of a strikeoput weapon in most outings this season.

This may be Maurer’s last or second-to-last start in the big leagues if James Paxton’s rehab continues to produce positive results, but finishing his stint in the majors with a strong performance could earn him another shot ahead of Erasmo Ramirez if the need arises later this summer.

Dominguez is 3-for-6 with two doubles off Maurer and Altuve, Chris Carter, Alex Presley and Jonathan Villar each have two hits apiece versus the right-hander. Presley and Villar each have home runs off him.

Keuchel has been terrific all season, using his sinking, two-seam fastball aned mid-80s cutter to induce ground balls, get ahead in the count and set up an above-average three-pitch offspeed arsenal including a slider, curveball and changeup.

He pounds the zone, stays down with everything and his three-quarter arm slot creates deception that helps his 88-91 mph fastball variety play up. He doesn’t walk anybody, issuing just 1.75 per nine innings pitched, and his ground ball rate sits at 67.7 percent, tops in baseball.

The M’s did get to Keuchel a bit May 3 in 9-8 loss, but none of the M’s hitters have solved the southpaw. Corey Hart has two career homers off Keuchel, but he’s on the disabled list. Stefen Romero (3-for-6, 2B, 3B) likely gets the nod in this one.

Sunday: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP — 3-0, 1.76 ERA, .189 BAA, 18 SO, 2 BB, 30 2/3 IP vs. Scott Feldman, RHP — 2-2, 3.02 ERA, .252 BAA, 22 SO, 12 BB, 41 2/3 IP
Iwakuma has been nothing short of fantastic in his four outings, throwing 68 percent strikes, hitting his spots with regularity and keeping batters off balance with his slider and curveball while setting them up for the splitter, his best strikeout pitch versus lefties.

Altuve has does have fits hits in 13 at-bats and reserve Marwin Gonzalez is 5-for-7 with a home runs off Iwakuma.

Feldman is a different pitcher than the last time he faced Seattle, throwing more sinkers and throwing a better version of it and using his improved curveball earlier in counts.

He starts with a lot of cutters and sinkers, but offers an above-average curveball and a changeup that is a weapon against left-handed batters. When he throws strikes early, Feldman can be tough with his mix of offerings, and he’ll combine his curveball with a high-zone four-seam fastball topping out around 90 mph.

Robinson Cano has a strong history versus Feldman with six hits in 19 at-bats, while Seager (4-for-9), Smoak (5-for-11, 2 HR), and Michael Saunders (3-for-14, 3B, HR) have done some damage against the veteran. Even Miller is 2-for-3 with a double.

Sandmeyer Says

The last time Houston was in town, in late April, it marked the lowest point of the season for the Mariners. The Astros took the first two games of a three game set and extended the M’s losing streak to a season high eight games at the time. It was so bad, that even Felix Hernandez lost a home start despite allowing just two earned runs over seven innings pitched. I’m not 100-percent certain, but I’m pretty sure if the Mariners don’t garner at least a split of the four-game series this time around, the world will stop spinning on its axis. That is a bare minimum prerequisite. A reasonable expectation is to take three of the four games.

The M’s will have the decided pitching advantage in three of the four games –- with the exception of Saturday’s game –- as Brandon Maurer (1-2, 6.00) meets left-hander Dallas Keuchel (5-2, 2.92). Furthermore, the Mariners bullpen has been outstanding of late –- a trend that will hopefully continue, should any of their starters falter, or if the team finds itself in a close game late.

Michael Saunders had a great road trip, going 8-for-19 (.421) with a double, triple, home run, and 6 RBI. His numbers at home are only 2 for 21 (.095) at Safeco Field, but that was over a span of 13 games with very limited opportunities – because for some reason –- Lloyd McClendon didn’t feel like playing him much the first month of the season. Expect Saunders to continue his hot hitting at home now that he’s playing every day.

…and yes, Chris Carter of the Astros will probably hit about five home runs this weekend, because that’s what he does against the Mariners.

Key Notes

Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
Cano’s hot streak isn’t really a a hot streak, it’s just Cano being Cano. Since May 3 (18 games) the second baseman is 28-for-72 (.389) with seven extra-base hits and an even 6-6 K/BB ratio … During that same span, rookie leadoff hitter James Jones is batting .300/.375/.460 with four doubles, two triples and two stolen bases, and No. 2 hitter Michael Saunders is batting .286/.311/.411 with four extra-base hits of his own … Speaking of rookies, right-hander Dom Leone is second in the American League among first-year pitchers with 21 strikeouts. Leone also has held opponents to a .206/.296/.333 line in 17 2/3 innings. The only blemish for Leone is the eight walks he’s issued, but he’s gone three straight outings without walking a batter and right-handed hitters are just 5-for-32 off the former Clemson star … The Mariners have hit 12 triples this season, a pace of 40 triples for the year. All 12, however, have occurred on the road.

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