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Table Setter: Mariners keep winning but don’t have much room to breathe

Denard Span may have played himself into a regular starting role in the Mariners' outfield. (AP)

The Mariners are still rolling.

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They’re 41-24, winners of eight of their last 10 games and 17 of their last 22.

Now is no time to get comfortable, however.

Even with all that winning, the M’s are back in a tie for first place in the American League West with the Houston Astros, and they’re still only 4 ½ ahead of the Angels with Los Angeles in town for three games. Right after that, they then have to play 10 straight against the top two teams in the majors, the Red Sox and Yankees.

Welcome to the toughest two-week stretch of the Mariners’ season.

Here are three things to keep an eye on this week.

The shape of the bullpen

Juan Nicasio has struggled with consistency in his first year with the Mariners, but when he’s been on it’s been a big boost for Seattle. The American League leader in holds won’t have a chance to be on for the upcoming seven-game homestand, though, after landing on the 10-day disabled list with a knee effusion last Friday.

Dan Altavilla would have made sense stepping up into Nicasio’s role, but he found his way onto the DL at the same time due to a Grade 1 strain of the flexor bundle mass in his right forearm, an injury that will require far more than the minimum 10 days on the DL to heal.

The Mariners will no doubt rely on Alex Colomé and Edwin Díaz as much as they can for now, but they have to be careful they don’t overuse them, too. Expect to see Chasen Bradford and his 1.82 ERA get some extra opportunities in higher leverage situations this week. Left-hander James Pazos (1.64 ERA) could also be used a bit more, but the Mariners better hope the starting rotation can continue its great run to keep pressure off the more unproven members of their relief corps while they try to keep up with Houston.

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Who is starting in the outfield

The player that the Mariners picked up in their big trade with the Rays that garnered the most initial attention was Colomé, but the addition of veteran outfielder Denard Span has turned out to be just as important.

In 11 games with the Mariners entering Monday, the 34-year-old Span has a .316 average, .892 OPS, two home runs and six runs scored. He’s been a part of some important innings during Seattle’s strong stretch since being acquired, too, and his ability to work a pitch count has helped for a team that has a lineup built more around aggressiveness than patience.

The Mariners aren’t lacking production in the outfield, with Ben Gamel hitting .355 since May 5 and Mitch Haniger playing himself into All-Star consideration. Guillermo Heredia (2 for 23 since June 2) has cooled off at the plate, though, so you might see more of a configuration like in Sunday’s 5-4 win over Tampa Bay, with Haniger in center and Gamel in right to start then the defensively-gifted Heredia coming in later in the game.

The banged-up-but-thriving Angels

The defending World Series champion Astros aren’t going anywhere – not with their rotation and all that talent in their lineup. The Angels might fade soon, however.

Much like the Mariners, Los Angeles has been able to stay in the AL West conversation despite suffering from injury woes. The Angels have won six of their last seven, a time when they’ve had to place both three-time Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons (and his .860 OPS) and two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani on the disabled list.

According to at least one report, Ohtani is headed for Tommy John surgery and will be out until 2020. That’s a huge blow for a team that doesn’t have much starting pitching depth and has a bullpen that has thrown the second-most innings in the AL and is without closer Kenyon Middleton due to his own Tommy John surgery.

Can the Angels survive after all that?

With three games against Los Angeles at Safeco this week, the Mariners can seize on a golden opportunity to set their division rivals back even further and create some space in their postseason pursuit.

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