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Table Setter: Pivotal week ahead for a Mariners team teetering on good start

Daniel Vogelbach will get his first extended opportunity to be the Mariners' first baseman. (AP)

The Mariners are 4-3 as they head to Kansas City for the final series of their first road trip of the 2018 season, and while they’ve won more than they’ve lost, they’re also losing players at a high rate.

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The latest player to go down is first baseman Ryon Healy, who rolled his ankle during a workout on Saturday, not long after he ripped a three-run double into the left-center gap in an 11-4 win over the Twins. He joins Nelson Cruz, Mike Zunino and Ben Gamel as starters out of action less than two weeks into the season.

It’s not all bad for the M’s, but the three games against the Royals will be pivotal for a team teetering on a good start to the season with four games against the defending World Series champion Astros looming next week.

Here are three things to keep in mind about the Mariners this week:

Mr. Reliable Mike Leake

The draw for Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto to acquire Mike Leake from the Cardinals late last season was the veteran right-hander’s consistency. In eight MLB seasons, the 30-year-old Leake has logged over 150 innings pitched seven times, maintaining an ERA under 4.00 in six of those campaigns.

Through his first two games this season, Leake has been exactly what the Mariners need. He threw seven innings of two-run ball in a 5-4 win over Cleveland on April 1, then held the Twins to two runs over five innings Saturday to improve to 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA.

It hasn’t entirely been the same old Leake, however. He walked three against Cleveland and four in Minnesota, which is already five more free passes than he issued in all five of his starts combined he made for Seattle last September after coming over from St. Louis. He also only has four strikeouts, including none against the Twins, but the fact that he’s been able to lead the Mariners to two wins despite not being completely on top of his game can possibly be seen as more of a good thing than a bad thing.

Leake is set to be back on the mound for the opener of the Mariners’ upcoming homestand Friday when the Athletics come to Safeco Field.

Vogelbach’s big opportunity

With Healy out for a stint on the disabled list, the Mariners will turn to their spring training surprise at first base.

Daniel Vogelbach will see the majority of at-bats at the position for the time being, and it will be his first extended look at playing regularly in the big leagues. Will the 25-year-old left-handed hitter be able to make the most of his chance ala Lou Gehrig to Healy’s Wally Pipp?

Vogelbach was a monster in spring training, leading all of baseball with a .407 average, .529 on-base percentage and .926 slugging percentage, and tying for the lead with seven home runs. But the Cactus League is very different from the MLB regular season, which could explain why Vogelbach has 21 strikeouts and is still looking for his first career big league home run after 60 plate appearances with the M’s since 2016.

He’s looked more comfortable at the plate in 16 plate appearances this year than in the past, at least, going 4 for 15 (.267) with a walk.

As pivotal as this week will be for the early season momentum the Mariners have put together, it will be even more so for Vogelbach, who may never again see this big of an opportunity to show he can be a major league first baseman with the Mariners if it doesn’t work out this time.

Will the bullpen right the ship?

The biggest disappointment early on for the Mariners – injuries to starting position players notwithstanding – has to be the performance of the bullpen. Take out closer Edwin Diaz’s electric start – three saves in three chances, eight strikeouts and no hits – and there appears to be a problem in relief.

Nick Vincent and Juan Nicasio, who both were among the better setup men in all of baseball last year, have each given up a run in half of their four appearances apiece. Lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski had one outing where he didn’t record an out and another where he allowed a run despite logging just a third of an inning on the mound. James Pazos giving up a run in each of his two one inning appearances doesn’t help matters, either.

It’s very early in the season and you can’t read too much into relievers’ ERAs, but the fact remains that the bridge between Seattle’s starting pitchers and its closer has been wobbly so far. For a team that came into the year expecting to have one of the better bullpens in the league, it is hard not to be alarmed by what has transpired thus far, small sample size or not.

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