OAKLAND, Calif. — The votes are in, all counted, and Seattle Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz is heading back to the All-Star Game as the American League’s starting designated hitter for the second straight year.
“I guess the Seattle people, they did the job,” Cruz said. “I have to thank the whole organization. The public-relations department did a really amazing job.
“And the people from the Dominican, I know they’re always behind me. It’s just a blessing.”
Cruz beat two-time former Mariner Kendrys Morales, now with Kansas City, in results announced Sunday afternoon by Major League Baseball on ESPN.
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The voting to determine the starters in both leagues, conducted solely online this year for the first time, ended Thursday night for July 14 game at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
Cruz, 35, leads the Mariners in most offensive categories: 21 homers, 50 RBIs, a .304 average, a .364 on-base percentage and a .554 slugging percentage.
“He’s been tremendous,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He has the ability to go the other way with two strikes. He drives in big runs.”
Cruz was the AL’s starting DH last season while playing for the Baltimore Orioles. He was the only Mariner listed among the leaders at any position in the weekly balloting updates from MLB.
“It’s always special when you get voted in by the fans,” Cruz said. “It means they definitely want to see you there. Last year was more of a surprise because I was fighting Big Papi (Boston’s David Ortiz). He’s the king of DHs.
“But it doesn’t get old. It doesn’t get boring.”
The pitchers and all but one reserve for the 34-player teams will be announced at 4 p.m. Monday on ESPN. The five Final Vote candidates in each league will also be identified at that time.
Right-hander Felix Hernandez is viewed as a strong possibility to be selected to the AL pitching staff. McClendon will serve as a coach on the AL staff under Kansas City manager Ned Yost.
“We have really good pitching,” Cruz said. “I think Felix should go. And Carson (Smith). Mark Lowe. It’s difficult because there are a lot of good relief pitchers out there.
“Hopefully, I’ll have some teammates going with me.”
One teammate unlikely to go is second baseman Robinson Cano, whose string of five straight All-Star starts came to an end. Cano is struggling through the worst season of his 11-year career.
Cruz is making his fourth All-Star appearance. He was picked as a reserve in 2009 and 2013 while playing for Texas.
“Anytime you go to the All-Star Game,” he said, “you’ve done something good for a long time. You just enjoy it. The first time you go, everything goes so fast. You don’t really enjoy the moment.”
McClendon will miss the upcoming three-game series against Detroit because of personal reasons.
“I had a death in the family,” he said. “My youngest sister (Angela) passed away. So I’ve got to go home. I’ll be back on Thursday.”
The Mariners open a four-game series Thursday against the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field. That is the final series prior to the All-Star break.
Bench coach Trent Jewett will serve as interim manager in McClendon’s absence.
IWAKUMA: FULL GO
Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma will be under no restrictions Monday night when he returns from the disabled list for his first start since April 20.
“That’s why we brought him back,” McClendon said. “I said he’s not coming back until he’s able to get up and down seven times. He’s ready to go.”
Iwakuma suffered a strained back muscle — a right latissimus dorsi — on April 21 in a routine day-after throwing workout. He returns after making three rehab starts in the minors.
The Mariners cleared space for Iwakuma by optioning outfielder James Jones back to Triple-A Tacoma after Sunday's 2-1 victory at Oakland.
Iwakuma experienced no problems with his back in his three starts, and concerns over a finger blister, which occurred Tuesday in his last start, diminished Thursday after his routine between-starts bullpen workout.
McClendon pointed to another key: Iwakuma’s velocity is back to normal after being down significantly earlier this season in three starts prior to his injury.
“He’s back to 91 (mph),” McClendon said, “which is a good thing. That makes his split better. He can’t pitch at 86 and expect to have some deception to his split.
“If he throws 91-92, then he throws a split at 83-84, that’s plenty of deception. An 86 fastball and an 84 split, that doesn’t work.”
Iwakuma was 0-1 with a 6.61 ERA before his injury after going a combined 38-20 with a 3.07 ERA over the three previous seasons.
Second baseman Robinson Cano remained in the game after getting hit by a pitch from Oakland starter Chris Bassitt on the right ankle with two outs in the sixth inning.
Whether he plays Monday against Detroit at Safeco Field is another matter.
“It hit right on my ankle,” Cano said. “It still hurts. Let’s see (Monday).”
Cano reaching base starting the Mariners’ only scoring rally in their 2-1 victory. He went to third on Nelson Cruz’s double. Both runners scored on Seth Smith’s single.
SEAGER MOVES UP
The numbers say Kyle Seager entered Sunday in a major slump over the last three weeks: a .187 average (14-for-75) with two homers and four RBIs in his last 21 games.
McClendon contends the numbers are deceiving, which is one reason he shifted Seager from fifth to second in the lineup for Sunday’s series finale against the Athletics.
“He’s by no means scuffling,” McClendon insisted. “The results have not been there. Even when he hasn’t gotten hits, they’ve been quality at-bats… It gives him an extra at-bat at the two-spot from the fifth spot.”
Seager went 1-for-4 in Sunday's victory.
This is unfamiliar territory for shortstop Chris Taylor. For the first time in his career — in his life, really — he’s being asked to be a backup player.
This is different from a year ago, when he split time with Brad Miller after a July 24 promotion from Tacoma. Taylor started 40 of the Mariners’ final 61 games.
This time, McClendon says Taylor is only in line for spot starts against tougher left-hander pitchers or an occasional assignment at second base if Robinson Cano serves as the designated hitter.
Taylor, 24, admits it’s an adjustment.
“I got some experience with that last year,” he said. “You’ve just got to prepare yourself. And if you aren't starting, keep your head in the game and always be prepared to pinch-hit and pinch-run or (play) in the field.
“You’ve got take your preparation seriously as if you would be starting that day. If you have a day off, it's not a day off mentally. You have to be locked in and be ready to go.”
It’s generally acknowledged that doing that is tougher than it sounds, which is why clubs typically assign that duty to veteran players. Willie Bloomquist filled that role until Thursday.
“You do worry about that,” McClendon said. “But for right now, (adding Taylor) gives us a better opportunity to win more games.”
It was 17 years ago Monday — July 6, 1998 — that Ken Griffey Jr. put on a rousing tour de force in winning the Home Run Derby at Coors Field in Denver.
Griffey won the Derby three times. In addition to 1998, he won in 1994 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, and in 1999 at Fenway Park in Boston.
The Mariners and Detroit Tigers open a three-game series at 7:10 p.m. Monday at Safeco Field. It is the start to a seven-game homestand that runs up to the All-Star break.
Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (0-1, 6.61) will be activated from the disabled list in time start Monday’s opener. Detroit will start right-hander Alfredo Simon (7-5, 3.94).
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.