MINNEAPOLIS — For all of the statistical and scouting analysis that so thoroughly permeates baseball, there remain occasions, it seems, when there is no discernible why to explain what happens.
Consider the case of former Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen, who entered the weekend on a run of 11 2/3 scoreless innings over his last 10 appearances. He also has 14 strikeouts in that span.
That “why” comes in two parts, and the first part…well, that’s easily explained.
“He’s throwing more strikes,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I just think (it stems from) the fact he’s in the zone a lot more and not working behind in the count as often. He’s got a lot of weapons, plus he throws 97 (mph).
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“When you’re behind in the count, and you’re forced to use the fastball…hitters don’t care how hard you throw if they know it’s coming. The fact that he’s throwing more strikes early is making him a lot more effective.”
Wilhelmsen is throwing strikes on 66 percent of his pitches over his scoreless run. He had a three-pitch strikeout Friday against the only batter he faced after inheriting a second-and-third jam.
Contrast that with Wilhelmsen’s first nine outings, when it was just 51 percent — and he gave up six runs (five earned) in 9 1/3 innings.
Now, the second part: Why is he throwing more strikes? Did he tweak something in his delivery? Change his approach? Shift emphasis in his repertoire of pitches?
“No…,” Wilhelmsen said on reflection. “I guess it’s just that time of the cycle. I’m just trying to get ahead of guys. It’s the same (approach). It’s just falling in the zone a little bit better, I guess. I’ll take it.”
Back in the lineup
Michael Saunders returned to the starting lineup for the first time since suffering a hyperextended left knee last Saturday when he stumbled and fell while chasing a fly ball in right field.
He said simply: “I’m ready to go.”
Apparently so. Saunders had three hits and a walk in five plate appearances in a 5-4 loss to the Twins.
Saunders also returned as the lineup’s No. 2 hitter, a role he filled 39 times as a starter in his career but not since last September. He batted leadoff in 12 of his last 13 starts this season prior to the injury.
“The general consensus is (as a No. 2 hitter) you might see more fastballs,” Saunders said. “I think it depends more on the pitcher, and it depends on how guys typically get you out.
“That being said, a guy like (James) Jones gets on first base, he’s a threat to steal. You might see another fastball here or there. But I really feel (for the most part), they’re going to pitch to their strength and to your weaknesses.”
There’s another factor, though. Batting No. 2 means you bat in front of Robinson Cano.
“Now, he might let you see a few more fastballs,” Saunders agreed. “They definitely don’t want to walk you with him behind you.”
With two open dates in a span of five days, the Mariners plan to skip Brandon Maurer’s next turn in the rotation. That means Chris Young, on normal rest, will start Wednesday at Texas.
Here’s the adjusted schedule through next weekend: Roenis Elias and Felix Hernandez will start Saturday and Sunday against the Twins. After an open date Monday, Hisashi Iwakuma and Young will start against the Rangers.
The Mariners return home Thursday for a four-game series against Houston. The scheduled starters are Elias, Hernandez, Maurer and Iwakuma.
Lefty James Paxton and right-hander Taijuan Walker are each scheduled for the next step Saturday in their recovery from injuries.
Paxton will throw two simulated innings. It will be his first work against hitters since a strained left back muscle (latissimus dorsi) forced his exit from the April 8 game against the Angels.
Barring a setback, Paxton is expected to throw one more simulated game before heading out on a minor-league rehab assignment.
Plans call for Walker to throw roughly 45 pitches in his third bullpen workout since his shoulder soreness resurfaced in mid-April. If all goes well, he is likely to pitch a simulated game by the middle of next week.
For those scoring at home, Major League Baseball issued some scoring changes for recent games.
Saunders received credit for a bunt single on May 6 in Oakland on what had been scored as a sacrifice bunt and a throwing error by A’s reliever Jim Johnson. Saunders’ average inched up from .226 to .235.
MLB also reversed an error charged to Cano at second base on May 1 in New York. Mark Teixeira is now credited with a single, which added an earned run to Roenis Elias’ line. Elias’ ERA went from 3.69 to 3.88.
Mocking up the draft
It’s less than three weeks before Major League Baseball commences its three-day draft on June 5, which means mock drafts are starting to appear from some of the game’s analysts.
So what are the Mariners going to do with the sixth overall pick?
ESPN.com’s Keith Law projects Oregon State outfielder Michael Conforto; MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo says Vanderbilt pitcher Tyler Beede, and Baseball America’s John Manuel taps Louisiana State pitcher Aaron Nola.
“The Mariners, along with the Brewers, are among the most secretive clubs around the draft,” Law writes, “and have been linked to a lot of names, including Conforto, Alex Jackson, Aaron Nola, Nick Gordon, Casey Gillespie, Kyle Freeland and Grant Holmes.”
Mayo adds: “There's a general consensus about the top five names, if not the order. This is where it starts getting iffy. Beede is one of many in the mix.”
Manuel noted: “The organization’s pressing need for pitching…means a fast-moving college pitching target makes more sense. No college arm other than (Carlos) Rodon will move more quickly than…Nola.”
Before Triple-A Tacoma infielder Chris Taylor landed on the seven-day disabled list because of a broken finger, he played well enough to draw recognition from Baseball America in its weekly Prospect Hot Sheet.
“Drafted because of his glove,” Baseball America noted, “the 23-year-old Taylor has proven to be a much better with the bat than expected.”
Taylor has a .372/.414/.593 slash in 35 games with the Rainiers and loomed as a possible call-up candidate until his injury, which occurred Tuesday on a slide at second base.
The injury, a slight fracture on the baby finger of Taylor’s left hand, isn’t believed to be serious, but the Mariners won’t have a firm idea on a recovery schedule until he is reexamined next week in Seattle.
The Mariners are 1-for-21 with runners in scoring position over their last three games…Robinson Cano was 2-for-5 and has reached base safely in 24 straight games. The best such streak of his career was a 26-game streak in 2012 for the Yankees…The Mariners (7-1) lost for the first time this season after not playing the previous day…Catcher John Buck shrugged off concerns regarding his bruised right hand by saying he felt “awesome.”…Mariners president Kevin Mather made the trip. He served as the Twins’ director and later vice president for finance from 1989-96…Pitching coach Rick Waits turned 62 on Thursday…Mariners pitchers entered weekend with 66 three-pitch strikeouts. Only Oakland, with 68, had more among American League clubs.
It was 21 years ago Friday ad Saturday — May 16-17, 1993 — that now-broadcaster Mike Blowers joined a select group of players by hitting grand slams in consecutive games.
Blowers hit his first one on May 16 against A’s right-hander Bobby Witt in a 7-0 victory at Oakland. On May 17, he erased a one-run deficit at Texas with a fourth-inning drive against Craig Lefferts.
That second slam ignited a 23-hit attack that produced a 16-9 victory. The two homers were also Blowers’ first two homers of the season. He finished with 15.
The Mariners continue their three-game weekend series against the Twins at 4:10 p.m. Pacific time Saturday at Target Field. Rookie lefty Roenis Elias (3-2 with a 3.50 ERA) will start against Minnesota right-hander Sam Deduno (0-2 and 3.64).
Root Sports will carry the game. The series concludes at 11:10 a.m. Pacific time Sunday. The Mariners have an open date Monday before playing Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon in Texas.