OAKLAND, Calif. — It appears Nelson Cruz should no longer be viewed as the Mariners’ full-time designated hitter.
Cruz started Saturday in right field for the third time in five games. And while that stemmed, in part, to Seth Smith’s recovery from a sore groin, Cruz is now ticketed for regular outfield duty.
“I just need to be smart about when I put him out there and make sure he stays healthy throughout the year,” manager Lloyd McClendon said prior to Saturday’s game against the Athletics at the O.co Coliseum.
“So, I’ll use the DH spot to do that. But to say he’s our full-time DH, I never committed to that. And he’s not.”
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Even so, this represents a modification in McClendon’s earlier plan. Shortly after the Mariners signed Cruz in December to a four-year deal, McClendon estimated Cruz would be limited to 30-35 games in the outfield.
“I think he’ll play more than 35 games in the outfield,” McClendon said. “I like the idea of being able to rotate that DH spot to give guys a day off or (to use it) when somebody is nicked up like Smith.
“Cruz will play his share of outfield.”
That suits Cruz just fine. Without making an issue of it, he steadfastly maintained his preference to play the outfield on a regular basis.
“DHing is boring,” he said, “but I understand my role. I’m here to play, and I’m here to contribute in whatever the role might be. I’m here to help.”
Coincidence or not: Cruz went 3-for-5 in Saturday’s victory over Oakland in 11 innings and hit his first homer of the season.
“It was important,” he said, “but we needed this win. The most important thing, I think, is the whole lineup contributed. We got a few hits and scored some runs. We got a W. That’s what we needed.”
Smith returned to the lineup Saturday for the first time since last Monday’s season opener and went 2-for-3 before getting replaced for a pinch-hitter. Smith is 5-for-6 in his two games and, again, coincidence or not, those are the Mariners’ two victories.
The next morning, Smith awoke with some soreness in his groin muscle, but he declared himself game-ready after taking part Friday in full pre-game drills and not experiencing any day-after problems.
Cruz seems more likely to play right field when the Mariners face a right-handed pitcher because that would permit Rickie Weeks, who has limited experience in left field, to serve as the DH.
“I’ve always known (Cruz) was a good outfielder,” McClendon said. “Now, having said that, he’s not a Gold Glove outfielder. He’s not going to run into the gaps and make diving catches.
“But he catches the balls that he’s supposed to catch. Every now and then, he’ll mess one up, but he’s an adequate outfielder.”
McClendon won a key replay challenge in that helped keep the eighth inning alive long enough for Cruz to hit a three-run homer.
Austin Jackson was at first after a one-out single when Justin Ruggiano batted for Smith against A’s lefty reliever Eric O’Flaherty.
Ruggiano hit a bouncer back to the mound that could have been an inning-ending double play, but O’Flaherty’s throw to second pulled shortstop Marcus Semien away from the bag.
Semien made a stab at the base before bouncing a throw to first. Initially, umpire Tripp Gibson ruled Jackson was out. But McClendon challenged the call.
“The way it was explained to us in spring training,” McClendon said, “if there’s an errant throw, then the neighborhood play is out. That throw didn’t take him to the bag. It took him away from the bag.”
The call was overturned. Cruz hit a three-run homer later in the inning.
Backup catcher Jesus Sucre started Saturday, after four games of inactivity, and became the Mariners’ last position player to see action.
Utilityman Willie Bloomquist played the entire game Friday after not playing in the three-game series against the Angels.
McClendon said he is targeting “130 to 135 games” for starting catcher Mike Zunino, which roughly puts Sucre on a one-a-week plan.
It was 19 years ago Sunday — April 12, 1996 — that Ken Griffey Jr. hit two home runs in a 9-6 victory at Toronto.
His second homer, a three-run monster drive in the seventh inning against Giovanni Carrara, hit above the Hard Rock Cafe in the upper deck in right field at the Skydome.
Rookie Tyler Olson got his first career major-league victory…Lefty J.A. Happ has a 1.33 ERA (three earned runs in 20 1/3 innings) in three career starts against Oakland…reliever Charlie Furbush turned 29 on Saturday. Pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and outfielder Justin Ruggiano have birthdays on Sunday. Iwakuma will be 34, and Ruggiano will be 33…Outfielder Austin Jackson collected his 800th career hit with a one-out single in the eighth inning against Athletics starter Sonny Gray. Jackson’s first hit came April 5, 2010 for Detroit against Kansas City’s Robinson Tejeda.
The Mariners turn to their ace, right-hander Felix Hernandez, when they complete their three-game weekend series against the Athletics at 1:07 p..m. Sunday at the O.co Coliseum.
Hernandez, 1-0, held the Angels to one run over seven innings last Monday in a 4-1 victory in the season opener at Safeco Field. Oakland will start right-hander Jesse Hahn, 0-1.
The game can be seen on Root Sports and heard on 710 ESPN.