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Stecker’s 3 Things: Returns coming to Mariners’ rotation, and they need them

Felix Hernandez is expected to rejoin the starting rotation next weekend against the Astros. (AP)

The Mariners are still hovering around .500, and will look to get over that hump this weekend during a three-game set in Texas to close out a seven-game road trip. Here are three things to keep in mind about the M’s this weekend.

1. The rotation needs help, and is still a week away from getting it.

Injuries decimated Seattle’s pitching staff early in the season, as they lost James Paxton, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma to the disabled list all in about the span of a week. Even so, the Mariners survived for a surprisingly long period with a patchwork rotation that featured Ariel Miranda as their most reliable arm on a week-in, week-out basis, at least to the point that they back in the wild card conversation when Paxton returned on June 6. Now Seattle’s on the verge of Hernandez and Iwakuma rejoining the rotation, as general manager Jerry Dipoto said they’re both expected to start during the home series against the Astros next weekend. It’s beginning to look like the Mariners will really need them by then, too. Christian Bergman has had some impressive starts filling in over the past month, but his last outing seemed like the end of the line as the Twins ripped him for nine runs on 10 hits over 2 2/3 innings. Rookie Sam Gaviglio has a 3.41 ERA over seven appearances (six starts), but the Twins also smacked three home runs off of him Wednesday as he gave up four runs in 5 1/3 innings. Miranda also stumbled this week, lasting only four innings as the Twins scored six runs on 10 hits and a walk off of him on Thursday. That leaves Yovani Gallardo – who has a 6.11 ERA this season – as the only Mariners pitcher with a quality start over the last turn through the rotation, and if that’s not a sign that Seattle needs it’s two veteran stalwarts back in action soon, I don’t know what is.

2. Where is Kyle Seager’s hot streak?

Over his six-year career in the majors, Kyle Seager has built a reputation for being a streaky player who follows up his usual slow starts to the season with a prolonged period where he’s one of the best hitters in baseball. In 2017, the usual slow start was there, but the hot streak that tends to follow has been nowhere to be seen. Now, that’s not to say Seager has been bad – most teams would gladly take a third baseman who plays strong defense and has a slash line of .264/.336/.411, which were his numbers entering Friday. The Mariners have grown to expect more out of Seager, though, something proven by his lucrative, long-term contract and regular spot hitting fifth behind Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. Seager has been remarkably steady in his time with Seattle, hitting at least .259 with an OPS of .739 or higher and 20 or more home runs in each of the past five years. He even made a leap last year, posting career highs in nearly every offensive statistical category. And while he’s still on pace to at least challenge his usual benchmarks, last season’s breakout is looking more like an anomaly than any sort of new normal. Should the 29-year-old Seager again hit around .260 with about 20 home runs and an OPS in the .750 range this season, it would be hard to be disappointed about his performance, but it would be equally hard to get excited about – especially if Seattle falls short of the playoffs again.

3. But then there’s Mitch Haniger.

Something that could ease any frustration of Seager potentially regressing is if rookie outfielder Mitch Haniger continues to hit like he has been – both before and after a lengthy stay on the disabled list for an oblique strain that kept him out of action for all of May and much of early June. Entering Friday, Haniger has played five games since coming off the DL, hitting 6 for 22 with two doubles, a home run and two walks. He’s still only played 26 games this season, and that’s very much a small sample size, but the 26-year-old Haniger has a confidence at the plate that makes it easy to believe he will be able to stay one step ahead of opposing pitchers as the season goes on. If Haniger can keep his average around .300, hit home runs at the pace he has been – he has five in just 120 plate appearances – and exercise the same patience he has shown in the batter’s box, you would have to think it would go a long way in helping the Mariners score enough runs to stay in the playoff race this season.