TORONTO — Outfielder Michael Saunders made the rounds Friday afternoon in visiting with his former Seattle Mariners’ teammates prior to their series opener against Saunders’ new club, the Toronto Blue Jays.
“It was like hugging some family members again,” he said. “I haven’t gotten to play against my friends since Little League. So it was great to see the guys and catch up.”
First baseman Justin Smoak, another former Mariner, chose a far lower profile. He remained inside the Toronto clubhouse until the Blue Jays emerged for batting practice.
Then a few brief words with a handful of former teammates.
No surprise, really. Smoak remains a man of few words. He and Saunders are both in their first season at Toronto after extended tours with the Mariners that never met expectations.
The Blue Jays acquired Smoak last Oct. 28 in a waiver claim but weren’t interested in his $3.65 million salary for 2015. They released him Dec. 2 and convinced him to re-sign a day later for $1 million.
The same day that Smoak re-signed, Toronto acquired Saunders from the Mariners in a trade for pitcher J.A. Happ.
Other than a change in uniforms, little has changed.
Smoak has yet to harness his offensive potential and serves primarily as a late-inning defensive replacement; he has just 53 at-bats in 32 games. He has two homers and seven RBIs, and a .226 average.
Saunders is — does this sound familiar? — on the disabled listed. A recent examination revealed a bone bruise in his surgically repaired left knee. He is expected to miss another three-to-four weeks.
“Luckily, it is something that I will come back from and be 100 percent,” Saunders said. “It’s just a matter of a little bit of rest. I’ll be in Seattle in late July.”
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon sent out a lineup Friday that included both of his catchers and put newly-designated super utilityman Brad Miller in center field for the first time in his career.
Newcomer Welington Castillo started as the designated hitter because, previously, he was 6-for-21 with four homers against Toronto starter Marco Estrada while playing for the Chicago Cubs.
Castillo drew duty as the DH because McClendon wanted to keep Mike Zunino paired with starting pitcher Felix Hernandez.
That worked out. Castillo had a single and a walk in three plate appearances against Estrada; and Hernandez, working with Zunino, was in top form.
Miller’s start in center came after spending 11 innings over two games in left field and five innings Thursday as a right field. He had never played the outfield before May 14.
“Was he ready to play left?” McClendon asked. “Was he ready to play right? I (saw) him in the two corners. He played great (Thursday) in the outfield. He went after balls very aggressively.
“Now, he’s in the middle of the field (and being asked) to catch a pop-up. He’s a good athlete. He played short. He can certainly catch a pop-up in the outfield.
“Now, he may mess up from time to time but, heck, he messes up at short from time to time. What’s the difference?”
Miller sounded surprised at starting in center field.
“I don’t know what that `8’ means next to my name,” he quipped. “You’ll have to point me in the right direction.”
Miller didn’t have a single defensive chance before exiting the game in the seventh inning.
20 AND COUNTING
James Paxton carries a 20-inning scoreless streak into his start Saturday against the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. If he prevents Toronto from scoring in the first, he’ll have the longest streak this year in the majors.
Minnesota right-hander Kyle Gibson had a 20-inning streak that started April 26 with three innings against the Mariners in the Twins’ 4-2 victory at Safeco Field.
Paxton’s streak is the longest by a Mariners pitcher since Hisashi Iwakuma went 20 innings last season from July 1-12. Iwakuma also has the last streak of more than 20 innings by a Mariner: 23 innings to close the 2013 season.
The Blue Jays added another ex-Mariner to their roster prior to Friday’s series opener by purchasing the contract of infielder Munenori Kawasaki from Triple-A Buffalo.
Kawasaki, 33, replaces Devon Travis, whom Toronto placed on the disabled list because of a sore left shoulder. Kawasaki started Friday at second base and went hitless in three at-bats.
The Mariners signed Kawasaki in 2012 after he spent 11 years with Fukuoka in Japan’s Pacific League. He batted .192 in 61 games for the Mariners before getting released after the season.
Triple-A Tacoma shortstop Ketel Marte cracked Baseball America’s Prospect Hot Sheet for the second time in three weeks. He was tagged earlier in the week as one of 10 breakout prospects throughout the minor leagues.
Baseball America reported: “Marte wows scouts with his electrifying actions, foot speed and knack for quality contact.
“He has improved his plate patience this season to boost his on-base percentage (.395) and wreak havoc on the bases (14 steals in 17 tries).”
Marte, 21, has a .346/.395/.444 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) through 41 games for Rainiers. He ranked No. 3 on the TNT Top 10 list of Mariners’ prospects prior to the season.
***The Mariners finally confirmed that veteran catcher John Baker was released from his contract at Tacoma. Baker, 34, batted .161 in 17 games for the Rainiers.
It was 21 years ago Saturday — May 23, 1994 — that Ken Griffey Jr. broke the major-league record for homers through the end of May by hitting his 21st with eight days remaining in the month.
The previous record of 20, set in 1956, belonged to Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees. Griffey hit one more homer before the month ended and finished with a league-leading 40 in a strike-shortened season.
Mantle won the Triple Crown in 1956 with 52 homers, 130 RBIs and a .353 batting average. He also won the first of his three Most Valuable Player awards.
Over the last 31 days (since April 21), the Mariners’ rotation has the lowest ERA in the majors at 3.02 — but the Mariners are 14-15 in that span…The Mariners’ slam-less streak of 139 plate appearances is the longest in franchise history. The previous record drought was 133 plate appearances from 1979-81…Friday started a stretch of six straight games for the Mariners on artificial turf — and are the only games they will play this year not on natural grass…Robinson Cano, at .301, is the only Mariners’ player with a career average higher than .250 on artificial turf.
The Mariners and Blue Jays continue their three-game series at 10:07 a.m. Pacific time Saturday at the Rogers Centre. Lefty James Paxton (2-2, 3.59) will face Toronto lefty Mark Buehrle (5-3, 5.36).
The game can be seen on Root Sports and heard on 710 ESPN.