(1090 The Fan) — It’s been seven years since the Seattle Mariners (47-38) were nine or more games above the .500 mark at this point in the season. The last time the club was even as good as .500 at this stage was 2011 when they were 43-43 and promptly went on to lose the next 17 games. This group is more talented in all areas and is just now starring to get healthy.

The Chicago White Sox (40-46) are next on the docket for Seattle and present a different challenge for the visiting Mariners. The Sox have been inconsistent this season and often are vulnerable to poor stretches of play but they boast one of the game’s very best left-handers in Chris Sale and perhaps the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year in first baseman Jose Abreu.

The bandbox that is U.S. Cellular Field serves up the long ball quite easily, particularly in the warmer months of the season, but there’s so little room in the outfield to squeeze in singles and doubles that offense is actually suppressed back toward the median. Pitchers that can get the strikeout and the ground ball succeed, those who do not generally have a rough go of it.

Pitching Matchups | Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
Friday: Roenis Elias, LHP vs. Chris Sale, LHP
Elias allowed five earned runs on six hits and two walks last time out versus Cleveland and if he fails to command his fastball in this one it could get ugly once again. The lefty has been somewhat susceptible to the long ball this season — 12 home runs allowed in 104 2/3 innings and at least one in 11 of 17 starts — but he’s usually hurt only when he doesn’t have his control and issues the free pass.

Elias is throwing the changeup effectively his past eight starts or so, throwing it over for a strike and creating some ground ball outs. His fastball still is sitting 90-92 mph and his plus curveball remains his best strikeout pitch.

This will be Elias’ first start against the White Sox and he’ll have plenty of right-handed bats with which to contend, which could mean more changeups early in counts and certainly suggests little margin for error.

Elias Splits (big-leagues):
LHB: .211/.277/.408, 3 HR
RHB: .239/.315/.376, 9 HR
Home: 4.44 ERA, 6 HR, .239 BAA
Road: 3.46 ERA, 6 HR, .227 BAA

Sale has legitimate Cy Young stuff and employs plus control and command. He missed five weeks in April and May and durability always has been a concern for observers of the Florida Gulf Coast product.

He’s reduced his slider usage this season, however, in an attempt to protect his arm. He threw 29.5 percent sliders a year ago, but he’s down to 16.6 percent in 2014. He’s throwing a few more fastballs this year but the key has been his changeup, an offering he’s going to nearly a third of the time. It’s working.

Scouting Chris Sale
Grades reflect 20-80 scouting scale; 80 is outstanding, among league’s best, 50 is major-league average, 20 is poor, not in line with big-league standards.
Two-seam Fastball (91-95) : 65
Slider (84-86) : 60
Changeup (83-86) : 55
Control: 60
Command: 55

Sale hides the ball well and creates advantageous angles with a low arm slot. He’s absolute death to left-handed batters, whom Sale strikes out at a rate of nearly 30 percent over his career. Lefties have yet to record an extra-base hit off him this season and are just 4-for-45 with 19 punchouts.

Sale vs. Mariners
Dustin Ackley: 2-7, BB, 3 SO
Willie Bloomquist: 0-1
John Buck: 1-3, 2 SO
Robinson Cano: 4-12, 2-2B, BB, 3 SO
Michael Saunders: 1-3, 2B
Kyle Seager: 0-3

Sale Splits
LHB: .089/.196/.089, 0 HR
RHB: .215/.258/.318, 6 HR
Home: 2.15 ERA, .162 BAA, 3 HR
Away: 2.57 ERA, .248 BAA, 3 HR

Saturday: Felix Hernandez, RHP vs. Jose Quintana, LHP
Hernandez is on a run that may lead to a second Cy Young for the right-hander but like his last start versus the Cleveland Indians, The King will have to navigate through a lineup that has touched him up over the course of his career.

Hernandez has had everything working most of the time, specifically his swing-and-miss changeup and a sinker he can throw for strikes that batters usually just pound into the dirt for easy ground ball outs. His 54 percent ground ball rate is the highest since 2007 and his K/9 of 9.61 also represents a career best.

Hernandez vs. White Sox
Gordon Beckham: 5-22, 2 HR, 2 BB, 4 SO
Jordan Danks: 0-2, BB. 2 SO
Alejandro De Aza: 2-7, BB, SO
Adam Dunn: 3-10, 2 HR, 3 BB, 3 SO
Tyler Flowers: 1-3, 2B
Conor Gillaspie: 2-6, 3B, SO
Paul Konerko: 7-28, 2 HR, 3 BB, 10 SO
Alexei Ramirez: 9-27, 2-2B, 5 SO
Dayan Viciedo: 0-2, SO

Hernandez Splits
LHB: .207/.250/.262, HR
RHB: .204/.238/.304, 3 HR
Home: 2.16 ERA, 2 HR, .187 BAA
Road: 2.04 ERA, 2 HR, .225 BAA

Hernandez has allowed 26 earned runs in eight career starts at U.S. Cellular, serving up 11 home runs and his lone start there a year ago resulted in four earned runs in 6 1/3 innings. But the Indians have had Hernandez’s number, too, and last week at Safeco he sent them home with a single hit over eight shutout innings.

Quintana is making start No. 18 on the year and is coming off his best outing of 2014. At Toronto, the southpaw tossed seven scoreless frames allowing just five baserunners and recording seven strikeouts,

Scouting Jose Quintana
Four-seam Fastball (90-93 mph): 55
Two-seam Fastball (90-93): 60
Slider (86-88): 45
Curveball (78-81): 50
Changeup (84-87: 40
Control: 55
Command: 50

The 25-year-old is using more two-seamers this season and has nearly abandoned his fringy slider, instead going to the curveball and changeup more often. He throws from a high three-quarters arm slot and uses the entire strike zone from edge to edge both vertically and horizontally.

He’ll vary the angle and velocity on his curveball some, depending on the batter and situation, burying the harder version under the hands of a right-handed batter and sweeping a slower edition away from lefties.

Quintana vs. Mariners
Ackley: 1-5
Cano: 2-7
Saunders: 1-3, 3B, BB
Seager: 1-4, HR, BB

Quintana Splits
LHB: .229/.286/.365, 2 HR
RHB: .265/.314/.366, 4 HR
Home: 4.25 ERA, HR, .266 BAA
Road: 3.01 ERA, 5 HR, .251 BAA

Wednesday: Taijuan Walker, RHP vs. Hector Noesi, RHP
Walker went six solid innings versus the Astros in his first big-league start of the season Monday. He was shaky early with his fastball command and the curveball was soft, but the bigger concern was his mechanics.

Walker’s delivery was better in his final minor league start. He used his lower half better and finished better through release. In Houston he cut himself off and did not finish his pitches with consistency, often flinging the ball off his fingertips rather than driving through.

Such clutter could have been the cause, at least partially, for his spring shoulder problems and without cleanup could contribute to further issues.

Walker will be making his first career start versus the White Sox and No. 5 of his career.

Noesi, who started the season in the Mariners’ bullpen, will make start No. 13 on the year and his first versus Seattle since he was with the New York Yankees.

He’s struggled with the Sox thus far, but if any pitching coach can help him add a pitch that isn’t straight it’s Don Cooper.

Scouting Hector Noesi
Four-seam Fastball (91-94 mph): 40
Two-seam Fastball (91-94): 45
Slider (86-88): 40
Curveball (75-77) 40
Changeup (80-83): 45
Control: 40
Command: 40

Noesi’s four-seamer is straight and flat and he doesn’t command the two-seamer well enough to take advantage of the movement. His slider is basically a cutter that he has to get in off the plate versus left-handed batters or break it on the outer edge against right-handed batters.

His changeup is his best secondary pitch and he uses it regularly, but it’s fringe-average at best. He’s using a curveball a little more since leaving Seattle, but it’s also below average with no depth and he hasn’t been able to command it well enough to go to it in hitter’s counts and keep opponents off his fastball.

Noesi’s lack of an effective, consistent breaking pitch makes him susceptible to right-handed batters, and his home ballpark is unkind to such pitchers.

Noesi vs. Mariners
Ackley: 2-3, 2B
Cano: 0-6
Endy Chavez: 0-2
Brad Miller: 1-2, 2B
Saunders: 0-1
Seager: 0-1, BB
Zunino: 0-1

Noesi Splits
LHB: .236/.301/.420, 7 HR
RHB: .340/.398/.521, 4 HR
Home: 5.93 ERA, 8 HR, .295 BAA
Road: 4.50 ERA, 3 HR, .272 BAA

Key Notes | Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
Robinson Cano is batting .216 with three extra-base hits in his first plate appearance of the game this season and .356 with 23 extra-base hits in all other plate appearances. The $240 million man is batting .309/.356/.407 versus left-handed pitching and .412/.538/.608 when ahead in the count … Centerfielder James Jones is batting .340/.359/.400 out of the No. 2 spot in the order, just ahead of Cano … Logan Morrison batted .262/.329/.477 in 19 games in June and enter plays Friday batting .292/.308/.542 with runners in scoring position … Right-hander Yoervis Medina has not yielded a run since May 12, a span of 15 appearances. He’s issued just three bases on balls in those 15 games, a tally of 45 batters faced … Seattle will face two very good left-handers this weekend in Sale and Quintana. Despite boasting a weak crop of right-handed options, the M’s are 20-11 against southpaw starters this season. But it’s not the right-handed batters getting it done versus left-handed pitching. Cano (.309/.356/.407), Jones (.305/.328/.390), Ackley (.286/.296/.429), Seager (.270/.319/.360) and Saunders (.265/.327/.327) each have held their own and then some against lefties this season and Morrison is slugging .450 against them. Mike Zunino, the club’s best right-handed batter versus left-handed pitching, enters the series 24-for-79 (.304) against lefties with three home runs.

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