McGrath: Mariners' lineup card can be as unsettling as their rotation

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comApril 28, 2014 

A few minutes after his team won its first series since its season-opening sweep of the Los Angeles Angels, Lloyd McClendon was asked to evaluate the effort of starting pitcher Brandon Maurer.

McClendon appeared puzzled.

“Who?” he asked, and when Maurer’s name was repeated, the manager of the Mariners smiled.

“I thought you asked about Moore,” McClendon said, “and I don’t think we have a Moore. Things have been going so fast.”

McClendon can be forgiven if he’s not sure who’s up, who’s down or who’s where. The Mariners’ lineup card for Sunday included four players not regarded as starters, and though one of the changes was a standard day-after-a-night-game position switch at catcher (where John Buck subbed for Mike Zunino), the presence of Stefen Romero in right field and his fellow former Oregon State teammate Cole Gillespie in left field suggested an outfield that is unsettled as the starting rotation.

Facing Rangers lefty Matt Harrison, a longtime Seattle nemesis who typically dominates at Safeco Field, Romero and Gillespie didn’t fare much better against Harrison than any of their predecessors have. But Harrison, making his first start in more than a year, was gone after six innings, and the Mariners kept chipping away at what had been a 5-0 deficit, and in the bottom of the eighth, they put two runners on for the suddenly torrid Kyle Seager.

Between Seager’s three-run homer and a rare ninth-inning that was devoid of drama for closer Fernando Rodney, the 6-5 victory wrapped up a goofy week for the Mariners, who lost two out of three to the last-place Houston Astros before taking two out of three from Texas, which began Sunday with the best record in the American League.

And to think: In the game Seattle lost Saturday, its ace, Felix Hernandez, was given a 3-0 lead.

“I think we’re getting better,” McClendon said. “Give us 50 games or so, then we’ll figure out what we’ve got. But I think the guys are starting to find their niche a little bit.”

After 24 games, this much is clear: There is much that isn’t clear.

Who’s playing center? Michael Saunders was there Sunday, but only to give struggling rookie Abe Almonte a day off. Still, if Almonte continues to struggle — and a ratio of 36 strikeouts to six walks, along with a .204 batting average, there is reason to believe he will — McClendon will have some tinkering to do.

Who’s playing the outfield corners? McClendon indicated Gillespie will be back in left and Romero will return to right on Tuesday, when the Mariners take on Yankees’ lefty CC Sabathia at New York.

Who’s playing shortstop? Utility infielder Willie Bloomquist, who replaced Brad Miller on Sunday, but that, again, looked more like a head-clearing day off for the .174 hitting Miller than a long-term statement.

But Miller (26 strikeouts, two walks) is going through the same ball-recognition problems Almonte is, and it’s fair to wonder if top Rainiers prospect Chris Taylor soon will be promoted, with Miller taking Taylor’s place in Tacoma.

And there’s the rotation. Maurer gave the Mariners what he could Sunday, which wasn’t much — he surrendered five earned runs and didn’t make it out of the fourth inning — putting further stress on a group of middle relievers who’ve become a team strength.

Help is on the way. It won’t come in waves, just one at a time, but one-at-a-time supplements are better than no supplements at all. Hisashi Iwakuma should join the rotation by the end of the week, and by the end of May, Taijuan Walker could join it, too.

Such a timetable would coincide with McClendon’s let’s-see-where-we-are-at-50-games evaluation.

If nothing else, the home-stand put an early-season losing streak, which was snapped at eight, in the rear-view mirror.

“The one thing about that eight-game losing streak, they all figured out that they survived it and they’re still OK,” McClendon said. “Sometimes, that type of adversity makes you better.”

For better or worse, adversity also has made the club different. Don’t be surprised if the team that returns to Safeco Field after the road trip will have some new names for the manager to shuffle into an ever-uncertain lineup.

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