HOUSTON — Heading into Saturday night’s game against Houston, the Mariners’ leading hitter was…shortstop Ketel Marte at .298.
That speaks to Marte’s ongoing surge at the plate since starting the season in a 8-for-43 funk over his first 12 games. He is batting .377 since April 20 and, coincidence or not, the Mariners are 12-4 in that span.
What’s even more notable is Marte’s rising production continues to be overshadowed by his play in the field. His defense on the current road trip alone is sufficient for a personal highlight reel.
“I’ve been saying this since the first day,” second baseman Robinson Cano said. “He’s pretty special. He’s a guy who just needed a chance to play every single day. He’s learning. He starting to learn the situations, like who is running.
"He’s special. Not only on defense but also offensively."
Marte’s three-run triple Friday helped the Mariners cut into a five-run deficit and forced the Astros to use their top relievers, Will Harris and Luke Gregerson, to close out a 6-3 victory.
Maybe that pays a dividend later in the series.
Marte is also showing an Ichiro-like chop swing on occasion, where he steps forward before swinging. He contends it’s not new; that he used to do it in the Dominican Republic. One such swing resulted in a double in Oakland.
"When I’m trying to do that," he said, "I’m looking for a pitch outside…I just try to hit the ball over the shortstop."
Manager Scott Servias wryly noted Marte’s chop swing isn’t a teachable skill, but added: "I’ve said all along. `Be who you are.’ Have the freedom to go play. Play free. I’m very reluctant to put handcuffs on any of that stuff."
There are no reservations regarding Marte’s defense, which proved pivotal in two recent victories,
On Wednesday in Oakland, closer Steve Cishek looked to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning when speedy Billy Burns hit a chopper up the middle. Marte reached the ball, spun and delivered an accurate throw that just beat Burns.
That play even surprised Marte, who said, "I don’t know how I made that play. That guy is fast." That play helped Cishek work around a one-out walk in closing out the victory.
"He’s being able to slow the game down," Servais said. "His internal clock is getting a lot better. Knowing who is running. Knowing the situation. That’s what being an everyday big-league shortstop is about."
In Thursday’s series opener against the Astros, Marte took a relay throw from center fielder Leonys Martin and, from short center field, threw out the go-ahead run at the plate in the seventh inning.
Cano then hit a three-run homer in the ninth inning for a 6-3 victory.
"I’m trying to play good defense and help my team," Marte said. "You can see what happened. If somebody hits it to me, I’m going to give it 100 percent to make the play and get the out."
And he’s hitting, too.
Right-hander Taijuan Walker reiterated Saturday that he expects to make his next scheduled start — Wednesday against Tampa Bay — after a neck spasm forced his departure from Friday’s loss to Houston after just two innings.
"Yeah, I’ll be ready," he said. "It’s better. I can turn it. There’s movement. So…yeah. We’ll see how it feels (Sunday) for a bullpen (workout). If not, we’ll just give it an extra day and throw it Monday." Walker said he could start Wednesday even if he skips his regular between-starts bullpen workout: "If needed, I’ll just throw a flat-ground (workout) the day before. I should be fine."
Walker received a wide range of treatments Friday and Saturday, including massages, chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture. He admitted he’s now a fan of the latter.
"I don’t like (the needles)," he said, "but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do sometimes. It definitely helped."
Lefty reliever David Rollins is making a case for promotion at Triple-A Tacoma. He lowered his ERA to 1.32 by closing out Friday’s 6-1 victory at Albuquerque (Rockies) with a scoreless ninth inning.
Rollins, 26, has limited opponents to two runs and eight hits in 13 2/3 innings over 11 appearances. He also has nine strikeouts and just two walks. Both runs against him came on home runs.
Since Rollins is already on the 40-man roster, he could be recalled (and sent back down) with a corresponding space-clearing move if the Mariners find themselves in need of a fresh arm.
OFF TO MEXICO
Right-hander Stephen Landazuri, who struggled in four relief appearances at Double-A Jackson, is heading to the Quintana Roo Tigers in the Mexican League on a loan.
Landazuri, 24, allowed eight runs on three hits and seven walks over 2 2/3 innings for the Generals. He split time last season at Jackson and Tacoma, where he was a combined 3-10 with a 6.93 ERA in 25 starts.
The Mariners again produced the Canadian Baseball Network Player of the Week when Double-A Jackson outfielder Tyler O’Neill received that honor, which recognizes the top performer among the 51 Canadians in the minor leagues.
Tacoma left-hander James Paxton was the previous week’s recipient.
O’Neill, 20, played just four games in the week but went 5-for-12 with two homers and six RBIs. He was batting .323 overall in 25 games entering Saturday with six homer and 20 RBIs.
The Mariners selected O’Neill in third round of the 2013 draft.
It was one year ago Sunday — May 8, 2015 — that Logan Morrison led off the bottom of the 11th inning with a home run for a 4-3 walk-off victory over Oakland at Safeco Field.
Morrison’s homer came against Dan Otero and marked the first walk-off hit of his career. It also came after the Mariners suffered walk-off losses at Anaheim in their two previous games.
The Mariners traded Morrison to Miami in the off-season. He entered Saturday with an .094 average (6-for-64) in 20 games.
The Mariners employed their right-handed lineup Saturday against Houston lefty Dallas Keuchel and anticipate doing so again Monday and Tuesday against Tampa Bay, which lists lefties Matt Moore and Drew Smyly as its starters. That means some regular at-bats for outfielder Franklin Gutierrez and first baseman Dae-Ho Lee…Houston second baseman Jose Altuve didn’t start Saturday because of a sore left index finger suffered Thursday while diving for a ball. He was 0-for-4 with a walk on Friday…The Astros optioned Evan Gattis to Double-A Corpus Christi after Friday’s game in order for him to get playing time at catcher. He opened the season on the disabled list after undergoing hernia surgery in February. The move cleared space for reliever Tony Sipp to return from the paternity list. Gattis was batting .203 in 20 games as a designated hitter.
The Mariners and Astros conclude their four-game weekend series at 11:10 a.m. (PDT) Sunday at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (1-3 with a 4.03 ERA) will face Houston right-hander Collin McHugh (3-3, 6.59). The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.
The Mariners open a weeklong homestand Monday with the first of three games against Tampa Bay at Safeco Field.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners