NEW YORK — Outfielder Seth Smith is back to the strength-building stage in his recovery from a nagging groin injury that surfaced midway through spring training.
"The groin is fine," he said Sunday before the Mariners closed out a three-game weekend series at Yankee Stadium. "It’s just a matter now of getting my legs back."
The most encouraging sign came Saturday when Smith, playing right field after entering the game as a pinch-hitter, cut off a drive into the right-center gap with two outs in the ninth inning.
The Mariners were clinging to a one-run lead at the time, and Smith’s play prevented the New York Yankees from scoring the tying run.
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"We were in no-doubles (defense) late in the game," manager Scott Servais said, "and he got to the ball quickly and got it in quickly. It was a big point in the game. It looks like he’s moving around a little better."
Steve Cishek then closed out a 3-2 victory by retiring the next hitter.
Servais admitted he was hesitant to put Smith in right field when looking to protect a one-run lead.
"We talked about it," Servais said. "Playing right field here is much different than playing right field in Safeco. Less ground to cover. The fence is a little closer."
So Servais took a chance…and it paid off.
But Smith was the designated hitter in Sunday’s finale. Nelson Cruz started in right field, but Servais indicated that move stemmed more from a desire to have Cruz log time in the outfield.
BENOIT BOUNCE BACK
Veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit reported no major day-after issues Sunday in his back and shoulder after pitching Saturday for the first time since April 8. He worked a scoreless eighth inning against the Yankees.
"It’s a little sore," Benoit said, "but that’s normal. The thing is I won’t know (if I’m OK) until I throw."
Servais indicated a preference, prior to the game, to avoid using Benoit for a second straight game.
"We’ll be careful there," Servais cautioned. "We’ll see if we need him today. I’d like to give him some down time. I don’t think we need to go three in a row or even two in a row. We’ll see how the game plays out.
"It’s about the whole season. I’d love to have him available — I know from the last six days without him. I want to keep him available for as long as possible."
Benoit wasn’t used in Sunday’s 4-3 loss.
Sunday’s pitching match-up between Hisashi Iwakuma and his former Rakuten teammate Masahiro Tanaka marked the 12th time in big-league history that two Japanese-born pitchers started against one another.
Four of those match-ups involved the Mariners, including two by Iwakuma against Texas ace Yu Darvish.
The first match-up of Japanese-born starters occurred May 7, 1999 across the street at the old Yankee Stadium, when Mariners right-hander Mac Suzuki faced Yankees right-hander Hideki Irabu.
That game was scoreless through four innings before the Yankees turned it into a 10-1 rout.
Iwakuma also reached a personal milestone Sunday when he made his 100th major-league start. He is the seventh Japanese-born player in history to do so.
The others are Hideo Nomo (318 starts), Hiroki Kuroda (211), Tomo Ohka (178), Daisuke Matsuzaka (132), Masato Yoshii (118) and Kazuhisa Ishii (102).
The only other Japanese-born pitcher to make 100 starts in Suzuki, who made nine in a six-year career with four clubs.
Hi-A Bakersfield right-hander Andrew Moore stretched his streak of not allowing an earned run to 24 1/3 innings Sunday before he gave up three runs in a 7-3 loss at Visalia.
Moore’s streak extended to last year when he pitched for Short-A Everett.
Moore, 21, is 0-2 this season for the Blaze despite a 1.62 ERA in three starts. He was the Mariners’ second pick last season in the new-player draft.
It was 15 years ago Monday — April 18, 2001 — that Ichiro Suzuki set a franchise rookie record when he extended his hitting streak to 13 games with a homer in the sixth inning of an 8-6 loss to Texas.
Suzuki extended his record to 15 games. He topped it shortly thereafter with a 23-game run from April 24 to May 18. Suzuki also holds the overall franchise record with a 27-game streak in 2009.
The Mariners have an open date Monday in Cleveland before starting a three-game series against the Indians at 3:10 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday at Progressive Field.
Lefty Wade Miley (0-1 with an 8.25 ERA) makes his first career appearance at Cleveland when he faces Indians right-hander Carlos Carrasco (1-0, 3.46). The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners