BRENT STECKER

Stecker’s Three Things: Better days arrive for Mariners pitching staff

May 31, 2017, 12:43 PM | Updated: 3:12 pm
James Pazos is one of several key relief arms to emerge for the Mariners. (AP)...
James Pazos is one of several key relief arms to emerge for the Mariners. (AP)
(AP)

The Mariners return to Seattle on an upswing Wednesday, taking a three-game win streak into the second half of their four-game, home-and-home series with the Rockies. Here are three things to keep in mind this week about a 24-29 Mariners team that is inching its way closer to full health.

1. A rotation begins to (re)take shape.

It’s been a long time since Seattle’s rotation has looked anything like the team had intended before the season began. Drew Smyly didn’t make it out of spring training, Felix Hernandez went down before the first month was in the books, and James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma weren’t far behind with woes of their own. That left the M’s with as much of a patchwork group of starters as any team in the big leagues. Ah, but there is good news for Seattle this week. First of all, Christian Bergman has emerged as a surprisingly reliable option, as he threw seven scoreless innings for the second time in his last three starts in a 5-0 win over Boston on Sunday. Rookie Sam Gaviglio has made it at least five innings in each of his last three outings, and Ariel Miranda now has a streak of four straight starts in which he’s thrown five innings of more with two or fewer runs allowed after Tuesday’s 10-4 victory in Denver. But most important is the Mariners’ starter in Wednesday’s homestand opener – the returning Paxton, who was the team’s ace over the first month of the season. He may need to be eased back into the rotation after 29 days on the DL, but his 1.43 ERA and 0.98 WHIP certainly looks good back on the active roster, and even more so when you consider Hernandez, Iwakuma and Smyly could all return over the next month or so.

2. Hey, this looks like a nice bullpen.

The Mariners’ pitching issues have not been confined to the starting rotation this year, but their bullpen does appear to be finding its groove as of late. Most notable is that Edwin Diaz is back in the closer role, as he worked the ninth inning in each of his last three appearances and even registered a pair of saves. He’s looked pretty dominant, too, allowing just one hit while walking two and striking out five over his last four one-inning outings. Maybe the best news, though, is that he hasn’t needed more than 18 pitches to get through any of those appearances, a sign that he is taking to the tweaks to his mechanics and staying in control of himself on the mound. He’s not the only reliever on a nice run for Seattle, however. Lefty James Pazos has been especially impressive, maintaining a 0.87 ERA and .189 opponents average over his last 10 outings (10 1/3 innings pitched). Then there’s Nick Vincent, who has thrown a combined five scoreless innings over his last seven appearances, Marc Rzepczynski, who has allowed a run to score in just one of his 21 appearances to date, and Tony Zych, who has a strong 2.63 ERA in 16 games. Those five make up a pretty formidable back end of the bullpen, and if Dan Altavilla continues to trend in the right direction, the Mariners suddenly look pretty lights out after the sixth inning – or maybe even sooner.

3. The curious case of Mitch Haniger’s obliques.

It’s been several weeks since the Mariners first started talking about Mitch Haniger heading out on a rehab assignment as he works his way back from an oblique strain, and the case is proving why obliques are known to be perhaps the most fickle muscles for baseball players to injure. Though Haniger was set to see action in Single-A as far back as May 20, he’s encountered a few setbacks – in fact, he’s ended up aggravating the opposite oblique muscle from the one he initially hurt, further complicating the matter. As a result, Haniger’s rehab has been pulled back so much that he now has a target date of returning to the batting cage on Friday – something he was already doing the last time the Mariners were home. Seattle no doubt wants its hot-hitting rookie back in the lineup, but there’s really no telling how much longer his DL stint could linger on.

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