After spending two weeks of May with Triple-A Tacoma to regroup from a slow start, Mariners center fielder Mallex Smith was recalled by the club Thursday, and placed in the starting lineup for Seattle’s series opener against the Twins.
“I’m anxious to see what it looks like, and hopefully he gets off to a good start and gets back after it,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “The reports in Triple-A were really good — running the bases well, broke out his bunt game.
“There were a lot of things that he got back to doing that he needs to do here consistently.”
The 26-year-old center fielder was optioned to Tacoma on April 30 after posting a .165/.255/.247 slash line during the first month. During the final 15-game stretch before he was sent down, Smith hit 3-for-46 (.065) with 18 strikeouts, and was hitless in his final 24 at-bats.
Before reporting to the Rainiers he spent several days with a personal hitting instructor in Florida. Smith said he didn’t want to just go through the motions, but give the maximum effort to make the necessary improvements.
“I definitely feel like I made lots of progress,” Smith said. “Maybe not all the progress that I would like, but definitely lots of progress. And, I know what I want to work on, so that was the biggest thing.
“I went down there with a clue. I feel like I’m leaving with a really great base and idea of how I want to progress from this moment on. Going down to Tacoma gave me some mental clarity to build my physical and mental game.”
Smith played in 10 games with the Rainiers, hitting 15-for-45 (.333) with three doubles, one homer, three walks and six RBIs. He also scored eight runs and stole seven bases, which ranks tied for seventh in the Pacific Coast League entering Thursday despite appearing in far fewer games than other Triple-A players.
During the first month with the Mariners, Smith was still regrouping from an elbow strain that cost him most of his spring training. Smith said he was more focused on the result than the process, which contributed to his offensive troubles.
“It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to think about,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to work on my day-to-day activity as much as I would have liked. It just kind of put me in a position that I neglected my work, neglected the process of having a better at-bat, seeing the ball as a batter, things like that.
“I wanted to just get a hit and help the team win. So, in that sense, it made it a little bit tougher and threw my focus off a little bit.”
Smith also played 88 innings in center field with Tacoma, recording 22 putouts and two errors, and worked defensively with former Mariners All-Star center fielder Mike Cameron, who has rejoined the organization as a special assignment coach on the player development staff.
“I worked on being a better baseball player, and I feel like I came out being a better baseball player,” Smith said. “So, we’ll see how it works today. I just worked on some rhythmic things at the plate, and just keeping routine plays as routine as possible on defense.
“I feel like I did an OK job of that, and they’ve got me back here, so I’m trying to make that carry over to my play out here on the field.”
Rookie infielder Shed Long was optioned to Tacoma in a corresponding roster move. Long was promoted on May 10 to help the Mariners’ ailing infield, and was 0-for-9 with two walks in three appearances.
Before he was called up to Seattle, Long was batting .276 with the Rainiers with five doubles, four triples, five homers, 14 walks and 21 RBIs. He’s played games at second base, third and in left field this season with Tacoma.
“He’ll be back,” Servais said. “I like the player a lot. Organizationally, we like what he brings, and his versatility is a big part of it, too. He’ll continue to move around the field in Tacoma.”
LEBLANC BACK IN ROTATION
Mariners left-hander Wade LeBlanc, who has been on the 10-day injured list with a right oblique strain since April 14, will return to the starting rotation Saturday night.
Servais said he hopes LeBlanc will get the Mariners through five-plus innings against Minnesota in his first game since his injury.
LeBlanc threw 59 pitches in 4 1/3 innings Monday in a rehab start with the Rainiers in Las Vegas, allowing one run on three hits, and struck out two batters and walked two.
“He went right into a rehab and goes into the fifth inning in the first rehab start,” Servais said. “He’s pretty efficient in his delivery, economical with his pitches. He knows what he’s doing out there.”
LeBlanc’s addition brings Seattle’s starting rotation back to five pitchers, with right-hander Felix Hernandez on the 10-day IL with a lat strain. Hernandez is expected to miss four to six weeks.
Mariners ace Marco Gonzales is scheduled to start Friday night’s game against the Twins, followed by LeBlanc. Rookie left-hander Yusei Kikuchi’s next start is pushed to Sunday’s series finale.
CRUZ BACK IN SEATTLE
Former Mariner Nelson Cruz returned to T-Mobile Park for the first time since joining the Twins as a free agent during the offseason. Cruz played four seasons with the Mariners from 2015-18.
He greeted former teammates and coaches during batting practice ahead of Thursday’s game, and reflected on his time in Seattle.
“It was great,” Cruz said. “It was the right call to become a Mariner. It was a shame that I wasn’t able to take the team to the playoffs. That was a goal. That was one of the reasons that I became a Mariner.”
Though Seattle never advanced to the postseason during Cruz’s stay, he could be on a path there with the Twins, who are leading the American League Central, and have one of the best records in baseball.
Cruz was slashing at .270/.354/.508 with nine doubles, seven homers and 22 RBIs entering the series, though he was held out of Thursday’s starting lineup with a wrist injury he sustained Sunday against Detroit.
“I definitely want to play,” Cruz said. “I want to play everyday. But, definitely it’s more special to be able to come here and play against the old team.”
▪ Right-handed reliever Sam Tuivailala (achilles) started a rehab assignment with High-A Modesto on May 2, and has made six appearances, posting a 0-1 record and 1.50 ERA, allowing one earned run, striking out six and walking four across six innings.
Tuivailala pitched in back-to-back games for the first time Tuesday and Wednesday, tossing a pair of scoreless innings.
“The reports on Tui last night were he actually threw better the second day of the back-to-back, which is a good sign,” Servais said.
Servais said Tuivailala’s rehab assignment could be shifted to Tacoma in the next few days.
▪ Right-handed reliever Gerson Bautista (pectoral strain) started a rehab assignment with Modesto on May 8, and has made three appearances, compiling a 0-0 record and 6.00 ERA, allowing two earned runs with four strikeouts and two walks in three innings.