The decision Saturday by manager Scott Servais to rest Leonys Martin by starting Ben Gamel in center field also underscored an evolving dynamic in the Mariners’ outfield.
Nelson Cruz has, effectively, become a full-time designated hitter.
"I think you could still see him in the outfield before the year is over," Servais said, "but I just know how important his bat is in the middle of our lineup."
Too important to remove for defensive purposes in the later innings. The Mariners, when leading, now often pull Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez and Nori Aoki to get a defensive upgrade with Gamel or Guillermo Heredia.
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"With Cruz," Servais said, "you hate to take that bat out of the lineup just in case the other team comes back on you. There’s nothing wrong with Cruzie. You could certainly see him out there before the end of the year.
"But the way we’re built right now, we want to make sure we have that bat in there every day."
That is likely to be the case going forward, too.
Gutierrez will be a free agent after the season. Aoki is likely to be one, too, since it is now unlikely he will get the 480 plate appearances necessary to trigger a vesting option.
The Mariners hold a $7 million option on Smith, but it includes a $250,000 buyout. Keeping him might depend on what left-handed-hitting alternatives are available.
Either way, Gamel and Heredia each loom as good bets to be part of the future, while Martin is a fixture in center.
As for Cruz, he is 36 and closing out the second season in a four-year deal that brought him to the Mariners as a free agent in December 2014. He remains a potent force in the middle of the lineup with 35 homers and 89 RBIs.
Keeping him in the lineup is paramount, but putting him in right field is less beneficial. Tellingly, he entered Saturday with a plus 3.5 WAR (wins above replacement) rating at the plate but at minus 1.4 on defense.
With the Mariners now having better available defensive options, the question of playing Cruz in right field tapers to a simple: Why?
LEANING ON DIAZ
Rookie closer Edwin Diaz made it three saves in three days Friday in closing out a 3-2 victory over the Athletics. Normally, that would have made him unavailable for Saturday’s game, regardless of the need.
That wasn’t the case — although Diaz wasn’t needed in the 14-3 romp.
The Mariners limited Diaz’s usage in earlier months in order to lean on him, whenever necessary, if they reached September with viable postseason aspirations.
"That was the point," Servais said. "There were a few (earlier) games when we would have liked to have gone to him, but we were trying to play for this point. We’re at that point right now.
"I think we’ve done a pretty good job of protecting him, but we’re getting deep (in the season). All of these games are important. It is nice to get to the ninth inning and hand the ball to him."
As expected, the Mariners activated reliever Tom Wilhelmsen from the 15-day disabled prior to Saturday’s game. The move became a virtual certainty when he experienced no recurrence of back spasms in a Thursday workout.
Wilhelmsen, 32, experienced back spasms after an Aug. 21 outing against Milwaukee. When the ailment reoccurred after after an Aug. 25 appearance in Chicago, he was placed on the disabled list.
The move provides the Mariners with an 11-man bullpen.
Wilhelmsen went right to work, too. He pitched Saturday and gave up two runs in the eighth inning; after getting two quick outs, he issued a walk before giving up a homer to Ryon Healy.
MORE ROSTER ADDITIONS
With Triple-A Tacoma teetering on elimination from the Pacific Coast League playoffs, the Mariners could add a few more players as soon as Monday’s series opener against the Angels in Anaheim.
Recall candidates include infielder Mike Freeman, first baseman Dan Vogelbach, outfielder Stefen Romero and right-handed pitcher Cody Martin. The Mariners could also return lefty Wade LeBlanc to their 40-man roster.
The Rainiers entered Saturday trailing 2-1 to El Paso (Padres) in their best-of-five series. Tacoma needed victories Saturday and Sunday to reach the PCL finals against either Nashville (Athletics) or Oklahoma City (Dodgers).
MINOR DETAILS I
Short-A Everett advanced to the Northwest League championship series Friday night by winning the North Division finals with an 8-0 victory over Spokane (Rangers) in a game played at Safeco Field.
The AquaSox swept the best-of-three series and will play Eugene (Cubs) in the best-of-three finals, which open Sunday at Everett. The series continues Monday and, if necessary Tuesday, at Eugene.
Right-hander Matt Festa, a seventh-round pick in June, pitched seven innings in Friday’s shutout victory. Third baseman Nick Zammarelli, an eighth-round in June, had three RBIs.
The game was moved to Safeco Field after a rainout Wednesday caused scheduling conflicts in Everett and Spokane.
MINOR DETAILS II
Hi-A Bakersfield will play a little longer after Friday’s 5-3 victory over San Jose (Giants) in the decisive third game of their California League playoff series. Third baseman Joe DeCarlo and second baseman Jay Baum hit homers.
The Blaze open the best-of-five North Division finals Saturday at Visalia (Diamondbacks). The Bakersfield franchise is folding when the season ends, and the Mariners will shift their Hi-A affiliation to Modesto.
It was 27 years ago Sunday — Sept. 11, 1989 — that Mike Schooler set a then-club record by collecting his 27th save when he pitched a scoreless ninth inning and closed out a 2-1 victory over Boston at the Kingdome.
The previous club record was 26 by Bill Caudill in 1982 and 1983. Schooler went on to finish the 1989 season with 33 saves, which remained the club record until Kazuhiro Sasaki had 37 in 2000.
The current record is 48 by Fernando Rodney in 2014.
The Mariners and Athletics conclude their three-game series at 1:05 p.m. Sunday at the Oakland Coliseum when left-hander James Paxton (4-6 with a 4.03 ERA) pitches against Athletics right-hander Raul Alcantara (0-1, 15.00).
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on the Mariners Radio Network, including 770 (KTTH-AM). Note that the game will not be broadcast in 710 ESPN.
The Mariners and Athletics play four more times — Sept. 29 to Oct. 2 at Safeco Field — in the final series of the regular season.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners