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Table Setter: Can the Mariners’ lineup survive without Robinson Cano?

Kyle Seager may have to shoulder the load for the Mariners with Robinson Cano out. (AP)

Oh, how things have changed since the last time the Mariners were at Safeco Field.

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James Paxton now has a no-hitter under his belt. The M’s have leveled off to the tune of 13 straight games in which they have alternated wins and losses. And last but certainly not of least importance, Robinson Cano is out with a fractured right pinkie for 80 games for violating the MLB’s drug policy.

Here are three storylines to follow during this week’s homestand for the 23-17 Mariners.

1. How will the lineup do without Cano?

Nearly every time the Mariners’ batting order has been written up this season, it has looked pretty formidable. A big reason for that is the constant presence of their All-Star second baseman in the No. 3 spot.

That’s no longer the case, and won’t be for some time. (Update 11:44 a.m.: OK, a loooooong time.)

Manager Scott Servais turned to Mitch Haniger at third in the lineup in Monday’s 1-0 win over Minnesota, but it’s not exactly a good sign that the Mariners needed a shutout effort from the pitching staff and a run scored on an error to win their first game without Cano. I wouldn’t bet on that sort of offensive trouble to continue, but it no doubt bears watching for the time being.

Also worth watching is whether the Mariners decide to move center fielder Dee Gordon back to second base, especially now that Cano is out until at least August and won’t be eligible for the postseason should the Mariners make it. Guillermo Heredia in center field and Gordon at second certainly makes sense at this point. Shannon Drayer covered that possibility Monday in this story.

Personally, I’m curious to see how Kyle Seager performs at least in the short-term. While he’s sporting a .242 average entering Tuesday, his hits have seemed to carry a little more impact this season than a year ago, and he’s already up to seven home runs and 24 RBIs. He also has four three-hit games to his credit, and in May alone he has four multi-hit games. A lot was made of Seager’s perceived lack of production in key situations in 2017. If ever there was a time to show his critics that he’s a big-time player, this would be it.

2. The eighth inning.

Juan Nicasio has looked unhittable at times in the eighth inning this season for the Mariners. Those instances have been the exception, however, and Seattle continues to be affected by not having David Phelps (Tommy John surgery) in the bullpen like they had planned through spring training.

Nicasio has had to be the bridge to closer Edwin Diaz maybe more than the Mariners want, but he appears to be out of that role due to being the owner of a gnarly 16.62 ERA over his last six appearances. That stretch includes a May 9 outing in which he allowed four runs on five hits while recording just one out and Sunday’s no-out appearance in which he gave up three straight hits to let Detroit get a walk-off win and take the series.

Nick Vincent got the ball in the eighth in Monday’s win over Minnesota, and it’s likely he’ll get a few more set-up chances going forward as the Mariners and Nicasio work to fix what isn’t working for him. In the meantime, you’d have to imagine general manager Jerry Dipoto is burning up phone lines looking for bullpen help.

3. The James Paxton-Wade LeBlanc combination.

Paxton and LeBlanc are both left-handed. The similarities pretty much end about there – and maybe that’s a good thing.

Right now, the Big Maple and the crafty Cajun are pitching back-to-back in the rotation, and it’s making for some kind of dichotomy.

Paxton throws hard – he can hit triple digits – and was able to strike out 16 and throw a no-hitter in the span of less than a week.

LeBlanc has bounced around in his career, whether you’re talking about the minors and majors, the organizations he’s been a part of, or if he’s pitching in the rotation or bullpen. For now, Seattle needs him as a starter, and he’s stepped up in a big way.

And here’s probably the other similarity between Paxton and LeBlanc right now: they’re both flummoxing opposing hitters. Paxton has a 1.61 ERA, .162 batting average against and 37 strikeouts over 28 innings in his last four starts. Since joining the rotation early this month, LeBlanc has allowed just one run over 15 innings (0.60 ERA), issuing just one walk while giving up only 10 hits. Monday was LeBlanc’s best showing yet, too, throwing six innings of a combined shutout with the bullpen to beat the Twins.

The Mariners are counting on Paxton being their ace. They aren’t really counting on LeBlanc being their second-best starter. Coming off their road trip, though, that’s exactly how things have lined up.

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