SEATTLE — First baseman Justin Smoak returned Friday to the Mariners after a recent surge at Triple-A Tacoma that he attributes to renewed strength in his legs after battling a strained left quadriceps muscle.
“I think it was (a matter of) finally getting my legs under me,” said Smoak, who went 10-for-19 with two homers and eight RBIs in his last four games for the Rainiers.
“I went a while there without feeling much in my legs. The last five-six-seven days, the legs started to get there. I’ve felt a lot better.”
The Mariners recalled Smoak prior to their series opener against Oakland at Safeco Field after placing outfielder Michael Saunders on the 15-day disabled list because a strained left oblique muscle.
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Saunders suffered the injury Thursday on a check swing in the eighth inning of a 4-2 loss to Minnesota. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam revealed a grade-2 strain.
“It’s extremely frustrating for me,” he said. “We were expecting from the way I went through some tests, and my pain tolerance, for it to be a grade-1 (strain). I was disappointed to hear it come back as a grade-2.”
A grade-2 strain is a moderate strain and means the muscle is partially torn but still intact. The typical recovery period is six-to-eight weeks.
“I don’t want to speculate,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “but it’s going to be a while.”
Saunders is batting .276 with six homers and 28 RBIs in 65 games. He missed nearly three weeks last month because of a sore right shoulder.
“It’s something I’m going to have to deal with,” he said, “and do my best to get back in there as soon as possible..Movement-wise, I feel pretty good. If I do certain things, I can feel it.
“But it feels more like a muscle cramp than a sharp pain, which I’ll take as a good sign.”
Smoak went right into the starting lineup against the A’s. He was batting .208 with seven homers and 29 RBIs in 63 games before his quadriceps injury forced him to the disabled list on June 11.
“He’s swinging the bat well,” McClendon said. “Hopefully, he can give us a little lift from an offensive standpoint. And, obviously, his glove work around first base is a little smoother than LoMo (Logan Morrison).”
Morrison served Friday as the designated hitter.
The Mariners sent Smoak to Tacoma on June 18 for a rehab assignment. He was activated July 4 from the disabled list and optioned to the Rainiers. He was just 11-for-55 through 15 games before his recent surge.
“I tried to play through it a little bit,” Smoak said. “But, now, my legs feel great. I’ve been scoring on doubles from first base. I’m maybe a little quicker than I was. We’ll see.”
The spot start Thursday by long reliever Tom Wilhelmsen figures to be a one-time thing this season. But next year and beyond…who knows? He might be a candidate for the rotation.
“Why not?” McClendon asked. “He’s 94 to 97 (mph) with real good sink. He’s got a cutter, curveball, slider and change-up. He’s a power guy, a power arm, and he’s flourished in the long roles.
“I think it would be awfully hard to build him (as a starter) this year. But, certainly, going into spring training, I think that’s something we would probably entertain.”
Wilhelmsen gave up one earned run Thursday while throwing 54 pitches in 2 2/3 innings. He yielded just one hit but walked three.
“I liked what I saw,” McClendon said. “He was pretty clean for the most part. He got tired in the third inning when his pitch count got up.”
Philadelphia outfielder Marlon Byrd revealed to CSNPhilly.com that the Mariners are one of four clubs covered by a no-trade clause in his two-year, $16 million contract.
That’s noteworthy because Byrd, 36, is often cited among the Mariners’ potential trade targets in efforts to acquire an impact right-handed bat. But…he also indicated clause is not necessarily a deal-killer.
Bryd said: “There would have to be a conversation with me, my agent and Ruben (Amaro Jr., the Phillies’ general manager) if it gets to that point.”
Players often agree to waive no-trade clauses in return for additional compensation. Byrd’s clause also covers Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Toronto.
Byrd said he put Tampa Bay and Toronto on his list because he prefers not to play regularly on artificial turf. As for the Mariners and Royals, he said: “Those really are things that were just put on at the time being.”
Byrd is batting .261 in 91 games with 15 homers and 62 RBIs. His contract has an $8 million option for 2016 that triggers if he gets 600 plate appearances in 2015. He has reached 600 only once in his career.
The Mariners entered the weekend as the only club in either league to have seven relievers with at least 30 appearances. None of their relievers, however, are among the top 36 in appearances.
Fernando Rodney, Danny Farquhar and Charlie Furbush lead the Mariners with 37 outings. Oakland right-hander Luke Gregerson leads the majors with 45 games. A’s lefty Fernando Abad is tied for second with three others at 44.
The Mariners ranked 22nd among the 30 clubs with 258 combined appearances and 24th in bullpen innings with 267.
The first 20,000 fans through the gates for Saturday’s game will receive a Hisashi Iwakuma bobblehead doll, courtesy of Root Sports, as part of the Mariners’ Salute to Japan Night.
A tip: If you want an Iwakuma bobblehead, arrive early. The Mariners are expecting a crowd in excess of 35,000.
Backup catcher Jesus Sucre, recalled Tuesday from Tacoma, is expected to start Saturday’s game…Left fielder Dustin Ackley returned to the lineup after not starting the two previous games…The Mariners entered the weekend with a 0.97 ERA (seven earned runs in 65 innings) over 18 games since June 20.
It was one year ago Saturday — July 12, 2013 — that Raul Ibanez became the oldest player in Mariners’ history to have a multi-homer game when he accomplished the feat in an 8-3 victory over the Angels at Safeco Field.
Ibanez was 41 years and 40 days old. It was the 19th multi-homer game of his career and boosted his club-leading total to 24 homers. The Mariners also got homers that day from Kyle Seager and Kendrys Morales.
The Mariners and A’s continue their three-game weekend series at 7:10 p.m. Saturday at Safeco Field. Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (7-4 with a 3.07 ERA) will face Oakland righty Jesse Chavez (7-5, 3.06).
Root Sports will carry the game.
The Mariners conclude their pre-break schedule at 1:10 p.m. Sunday against the A’s. After a four-day break for the All-Star Game, the Mariners resume their season July 18 against the Angels in Anaheim, Calif.