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Stecker’s Three Things: Mariners’ times of trouble may be over with returns from injury coming soon

Mitch Haniger is one part of a trio of key Mariners players who should return soon from injury. (AP)

The Seattle Mariners locked up their fifth straight home series with two wins out of three games against the Oakland A’s, which was no small accomplishment considering how they’ve fell on black days with injuries and inconsistency this season. Here are three things to keep in mind as they open their series Thursday night against the Chicago White Sox.

1. Kyle Seager appears poised to finally break out.

Seattle’s third baseman has always been a slow starter, and 2017 has been no different as his meager offensive production has been outshined by the likes of Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger. But sure as seasons roll on by, Seager appears to be warming up now that the first quarter of the campaign has passed. While his average is still hovering in the .250s, the good signs are that his on-base percentage is still at a respectable level (.344 entering Thursday) and his slugging has been given a boost after homers in back-to-back games against the A’s this week. His main problem early on this season has been a lack of driving the ball, so those two homers at Safeco Field are reason to believe he’s getting into the rhythm at the plate that he’s been looking for. And though he hasn’t had a multi-hit game in the last week, he has hit safely in 12 of his last 14 contests. Seager may not be back in All-Star form, but he’s showing signs that he’s about to reel off one of his well-known hot streaks.

2. Can the bullpen keep things together?

Though the Mariners took their three-game series with the A’s, their week started off with all kinds of issues for the bullpen. First, they barely escaped Monday with a 6-5 win despite taking a three-run lead into the final stanza, as closer Edwin Diaz threw just 12 of 28 pitches for strikes, walking four and retiring only one batter before Scott Servais decided to go to Tony Zych to get the final two outs. Then on Tuesday, after it was announced Diaz had been taken out of the closer role, Seattle had the bumpiest of ninth innings, with Steve Cishek and Marc Rzepczynski combined to give up five runs on two homers, turning a 5-4 lead into an eventual 9-6 loss. The Mariners will essentially be searching with their good eye closed to navigate the late innings for the time being, something Servais admitted before Wednesday’s 4-0 victory over Oakland. “Having an anchor at the back of the bullpen is huge,” Servais said of having a reliable closer. “When you don’t have the so-called anchor, you’ve got to be creative in how you’re handling other people, but at the end of the day we can’t afford to lose any of our bullpen guys.” That’s why Servais called the current bullpen situation “challenging” – they need their veteran relievers to step up, but they especially can’t afford to overuse them and end up losing them for an extended period of time. Especially considering how they might be in a position to make a run sooner rather than later.

3. The Mariners are about to get significantly more healthy.

No team welcomes a plague of injuries like the Mariners have had in 2017, but they certainly welcome the returns of key figures. And in that respect, the Mariners appear on the verge of getting back a few players that could help them get back into the mix of things. There has been talk of a rehab start in the minors for James Paxton coming soon, and the Mariners have been encouraged by the fact that they were able to shut him down before his forearm strain progressed into something much more serious. Outfielder Mitch Haniger, who had his hands all over any success the team had on offense during the first month of the season before an oblique injury landed him on the DL, has been on the field during pregame in recent days doing agility drills and even taking cuts in the batting cage. Robinson Cano shouldn’t be out for long with a quad strain, something that didn’t seem to impact him at the plate all the much before the Mariners decided he needed to rest it. Those three returns alone would do a lot of good for Seattle, and Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly could all follow in stages to get the starting rotation back to full strength. Though the Houston Astros are currently running away with the AL West, the Mariners have been able to stay within striking distance and could easily catch fire and start to make the race tighter and tighter.