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Mariners’ Felix Hernandez, James Paxton progressing quickly toward returns to starting rotation

James Paxton could be back on the mound for the Mariners on their next road trip. (AP)

The picture for the Mariners’ starting rotation down the stretch is beginning to come into focus with Felix Hernandez and James Paxton inching closer to return and Mike Leake’s next start being pushed to Friday.

Hernandez and Paxton have thrown two bullpens each with Felix throwing one day and Paxton the next. The first bullpens for both since their injuries – shoulder bursitis for Hernandez and a pectoral muscle strain for Paxton – were mostly about finding mechanics and rhythm after long layoffs. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. was pleased with what he saw from each pitchers’ second bullpen sessions.

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“Felix yesterday, much, much better than his first one,” he said. “He put it all together. We went to work with his direction trying to get him to feel his legs and get himself going out in a good position to carry his arm out forward and finish his pitches and it was very good.”

As for the left-handed part of the equation: “Paxton was outstanding,” Stottlemyre said. “Thirty-five pitches and at the end he wanted more, which was a good sign. He looks healthy.”

The next step is for the duo to each throw a sim game this weekend, possibly against each other. After that?

“We want to let them see some hitters and then hopefully be able to fire them out into a game against a club with a different uniform on,” said Stottlemyre.

If all goes well, that could be next week on the Mariners’ next road trip. With Seattle’s minor league seasons wrapped up there is nowhere to send them for rehab starts, so when they are ready to face hitters it will be in big league games.

“They will not be able to go out and throw 75-80 pitches right out of the chute,” said manager Scott Servais. “It may be a situation where those guys are starting and the younger guys are coming in.”

There will be plenty of guys to fill in or even piggy-back. Yovani Gallardo has already been moved to the bullpen. Andrew Moore will make a spot start Wednesday with Leake having been pushed to Friday’s series opener against the Angels. Moore can give extended innings or be designated a second starter of sorts, as can Marco Gonzales. It no doubt has been carefully mapped out.

First thing is first, however: get Felix and Paxton back into games. In a best-case scenario, if all goes well in the sim game we could see them pitching in the Texas series that starts next Monday. If they are able to go in that series then we are looking at four starts from each before the end of the season.

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