A resurgent Nori Aoki is suddenly forcing his way back into the Mariners’ plans for next season.
If he wants to be.
Aoki entered Saturday’s game with 420 plate appearances and, with 15 games remaining, now rates a legitimate shot of reaching the 480 threshold necessary to trigger a $5 million player option for 2017.
And even if he falls short, Aoki’s production since returning from a one-month remedial tour at Triple-A Tacoma has exceeded all expectations, which is prompting increased interest from the club in keeping him around.
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"He made a few adjustments in his swing," manager Scott Servais said. "He’s staying through the ball more. He’s looking to hit the ball hard. He’s not just looking to tap it and get it in play somewhere.
"He’s staying on line more. He’s not over-rotating and spinning off the ball. He’s much more consistent there."
Aoki would likely need to play every day, or nearly every day, to trigger his option, but the schedule suggests the Mariners will be facing a lot of right-handed pitchers over the final two weeks.
Prior to Saturday, Aoki was batting .317 with a .363 on-base percentage and a .468 slugging percentage in 39 games since returning from his first Tacoma tour. He endured another 10-day demotion in late August, but that was due to roster issues.
"I’m doing a lot of things different," he said. "It’s not just one thing. I changed my bat. I changed my helmet. I changed the way I see the ball. I changed a lot of things."
All of Aoki’s post-Tacoma numbers are significantly better than his career averages of .287/.353/.386 through his four previous big-league seasons.
"He’s been awesome," general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "I don’t think he was ever out of our plans (for 2017). When we sent him to Triple-A, we explained to him that we were going to let him play. And whatever happens, happens."
What’s happened has turned heads.
REVISED PLANS FOR ALTAVILLA
Rookie reliever Dan Altavilla’s schedule for October remains uncertain — as it does for all of the Mariners — but it’s no longer likely to include a tour in the Arizona Fall League.
"He’s pitched fairly regularly here," Dipoto said. "So we’ll probably wind up pulling the plug. It’s getting to the point where it’s probably not something that we would pursue."
Altavilla, 24, has made nine appearances — allowing just one run in seven innings — since his Aug. 27 promotion from Double-A Jackson. He compiled a 1.91 ERA in 43 games for the LumberKings.
"He’s done really well," Servais said. "A young guy coming up from Double-A, you don’t know how he’s going to handle everything. I like what I see. I think he’s got a very bright future ahead of him."
***The Mariners are still planning to send outfielder Guillermo Heredia to the Fall League — largely because the terms of his visa do not permit him to leave the United States to play winter ball in the Caribbean.
LIND STILL SLOWED
First baseman Adam Lind’s sore right index finger is healing slower than expected, which is one reason why Dae-Ho Lee drew a rare start against a right-handed pitcher.
"(Friday) in (batting practice) BP wasn’t so great with the vibration on the finger," Servais said. "They’re trying some different things to get some more swelling out of there.
"It’s just day to day. You don’t know when he’s going to be ready."
Lind suffered the injury Sept. 11 while diving for a ground ball at Oakland.
Rookie Dan Vogelbach replaced Lind for three straight games against right-handed pitchers, but he is 1-for-10 since his Sept. 12 recall from Tacoma and struck out Friday in all three of his at-bats.
CLEVENGER EYING TIME IN DOMINICAN
Injured catcher Steve Clevenger is hoping to play this winter in the Dominican Republic in an effort to log some game action prior to reporting next year for spring training.
Clevenger suffered a broken middle finger on his right hand June 29 on a foul tip. The injury required surgery to insert a plate and six screws, but he was on track for a September activation before suffering an elbow injury.
"Everything feels natural with the hand," he said. "Obviously, I’ve got some strength to build up in it. I was DH-ing for a while, and that felt good. We just ran into an elbow issue when I got back out there and throwing."
Clevenger, 30, batted .221 with one homer and seven RBIs in 22 games prior to the injury. The Mariners acquired him last December from Baltimore in a trade for first baseman/outfielder Mark Trumbo and reliever C.J. Riefenhauser.
"If I go (to winter ball)," he said, "it’ll probably be the Dominican. I’ve talked to some teams down there about it. I’m going to try to play the second half. When they’re playing the first half, I need to rest and build some strength back up.
"But I’m going to try to go get some at-bats somewhere in winter ball just to stay ready, to get back into it. I missed so much time."
Lo-A Clinton resumed its best-of-five Midwest League championship series Saturday at Great Lakes (Dodgers). The series is tied 1-1. All remaining games will be played at Great Lakes.
The LumberKings are the only Mariners affiliate still playing and are seeking to become the organization’s third affiliate to win a title. Double-A Jackson won the Southern League, and Peoria won the Arizona Rookie League.
In addition to Clinton outfielder Luis Liberato being selected by Escogido, as previously reported, two other LumberKings were chosen this week in the Dominican Winter League draft.
The draft applies to players who made their debut this year in a full-season league. Liberato was picked in the third round.
Right-hander Pedro Vasquez was selected in the seventh round by Este, and outfielder Ricky Eusebio was picked in the 22nd round by Licey.
Vasquez, 20, was 3-2 with a 2.28 ERA in eight starts for the LumberKings after opening the year at Peoria in the Arizona Rookie League. He was signed April 8, 2015.
Eusebio, 22, was a 16th-round pick in 2015. He batted .232 this season with six homers and 39 RBIs in 111 games.
It was seven years ago Sunday — Sept. 18, 2009 — that Ichiro Suzuki hit a two-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning against Mariano Rivera that lifted the Mariners to a 2-1 walk-off victory over the New York Yankees.
Suzuki’s homer broke a streak of 27 straight successful saves by Rivera against the Mariners that covered more than 12 years — to Aug. 23, 1997. It was the first walk-off homer in Suzuki’s career.
The Mariners and Astros conclude their three-game series at 1:10 p.m. Sunday at Safeco Field. Rookie left-hander Ariel Miranda (4-1 with a 4.10 ERA) will face Houston right-hander Doug Fister (12-11, 4.17).
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on the Mariners Radio Network, which includes KTTH (770 AM). The game will not be broadcast on 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners