Seattle Mariners

Mariners notebook: All signs go for Paxton to return Sunday to rotation

Mariners catcher Mike Zunino and starting pitcher James Paxton look at Paxton’s pitching hand in the fifth inning May 28. Paxton left the game and has not pitched in the big leagues since. He’s in line to pitch Sunday against Colorado.
Mariners catcher Mike Zunino and starting pitcher James Paxton look at Paxton’s pitching hand in the fifth inning May 28. Paxton left the game and has not pitched in the big leagues since. He’s in line to pitch Sunday against Colorado. AP

The long wait is nearly over for left-hander James Paxton, who is on track for a return Sunday to the Mariners’ rotation after an absence of more than 15 weeks.

“I feel great,” he said. “No problems at all. I feel really good. As long as he gives me the ball, I’m out there.”

Paxton’s last start was May 28, when he exited in the fifth inning against Cleveland because of a strained tendon in his middle finger.

After a longer-than-expected recovery, he appeared poised to rejoin the big-league rotation earlier this month before suffering a blister and a torn nail in the same finger in a Sept. 2 rehab start for Triple-A Tacoma.

The blister-and-fingernail issue put Paxton on the shelf for roughly another week, but he tested his recovery Thursday by throwing a full bullpen workout. When no day-after problems surfaced, he was cleared for duty.

“I threw everything,” he said. “Cutters. Curveballs. There was no pain with the fingernail or anything. (The fingernail) is going to look a little weird for a while. But it doesn’t hurt, so I’m ready to go.”

Paxton, 26, was 3-3 with a 3.70 ERA in 10 starts prior to his injury and is 12-7 with a 3.05 ERA in 27 starts over parts of three injury-interrupted seasons.

The plan now is to push Paxton’s workload to the max over the closing weeks. He projects to get four starts before heading to the Arizona Fall League for additional work.

“And then I’ll be done,” he said. “I’m going to get as many innings as I can (in Arizona), and then finish it off so I can have a good off-season and get ready for spring training.”

If all goes well, Paxton should finish with roughly 120 innings, counting his time in Arizona. If so, he said: “I can be ready to go as many as I’m needed next year — 180 (innings) or somewhere in there.”

GUTIERREZ IMPROVING

Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez tested his ailing groin area Friday in pregame running drills and could return to the lineup Saturday for the first time since Sept. 4.

Gutierrez has been battling a recurrence of chronic joint issues. He is batting .313 with 11 homers and 30 RBIs in 45 games since his June 24 promotion from Tacoma.

ROTATION PLANS

It’s probably no surprise that Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon tentatively plans for Vidal Nuno’s next start to come against Texas — even if it means extended rest.

Nuno yielded one hit in seven shutout innings Wednesday in a 6-0 victory over the Rangers. He now figures to get a nine-day break before starting the Sept. 18 series opener at Texas.

McClendon said right-hander Taijuan Walker will start Monday in the series opener against the Los Angeles Angels — assuming Paxton starts, as expected, in Sunday’s series finale against Colorado.

The plan provides Walker with an extra day of rest before facing L.A.

Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are tentatively slotted for Tuesday and Wednesday against the Angels. After an open date, Nuno should open against the Rangers at Globe Life Park.

CANO COUNTDOWN

Robinson Cano entered the weekend needing one extra-base hit to reach 50 and become only the fifth player in history to achieve that milestone in each of his first 11 seasons.

The others were Carlos Lee (13 seasons from 1999-2011), Albert Pujols (12 seasons from 2001-12), Eddie Mathews (12 seasons from 1952-63) and Paul Waner (11 seasons from 1926-36).

Cano needs 12 more hits to become the 14th player to reach 2,000 over his first 11 seasons. He is the only player in history to get at least 30 doubles in each of his first 11 seasons.

TAMING TEXAS

Hernandez, it seems, is no longer a Texas punching bag.

As the Elias Sports Bureau observed, Hernandez is 4-0 with a 1.57 ERA this season in four starts against the Rangers after going 4-12 with a 4.27 ERA in 20 starts over the previous five seasons.

Hernandez could get one more start against Texas if he remains on an every-fifth-day schedule: Sept. 20 at Globe Life Park in Arlington.

In all, Hernandez (17-8) projects to get four more starts. He needs three victories to reach 20 for the first time in his career, and he needs 17 innings and 25 strikeouts for his seventh straight 200-200 season.

MINOR DETAILS

Three players from the Mariners organization were cited by Baseball America on its classification all-star teams: first baseman Jesus Montero at Triple-A; and shortstop Drew Jackson and right-hander Andrew Moore for short-season leagues.

Montero, 25, batted .355 at Tacoma with 18 homers and 85 RBIs in 98 games. He was recalled last week to the big-league roster after the Rainiers completed their season.

Moore, 21, and Jackson, 22, were the Mariners’ second and fifth picks in the June draft and played at Everett. Moore was 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 14 games, including eight starts.

Jackson was picked as the Northwest League’s most valuable player after batting .358 with 47 stolen bases in 59 games.

MINOR NUMBERS

The Mariners’ six domestic affiliates compiled an overall record this season of 301-391 for a .435 winning percentage. That ranked next-to-last among the 30 organizations: Miami posted a .427 percentage (297-399).

Successful records in the minors aren’t always a indicator of future big-league success. Some organizations follow a “develop to win” philosophy over a “win to develop” approach.

Even so, it’s worth noting that AL West rival Houston had the best overall record among affiliates at .565 (431-332).

Among other AL West clubs: Texas ranked 10th at .518 (359-334); Oakland was 21st at .483 (335-359) and Los Angeles was 27th at .459 (317-374).

LOOKING BACK

It was 19 years ago — Sept. 12, 1996 — that the Mariners began what was then a club-record, 10-game winning streak with a 4-2 victory at Kansas City. (They could use one of those right now.)

That 1996 run remained the club’s best streak until a 15-game streak in 2001. The Mariners also had a 10-game run in 2002.

SHORT HOPS

Brad Miller started at shortstop Friday when manager Lloyd McClendon opted to rest rookie Ketel Marte. McClendon said of Marte: “He’s been showing a few signs of being fatigued a little bit, and it seemed a good day to give him off.” It was Miller’s first appearance at shortstop since Aug. 30, when his two-out throwing error in the ninth inning in Chicago cost the Mariners a victory. … The Mariners entered Friday after pitching consecutive shutouts for the 20th time in franchise history. They had never, in 19 previous chances, produced a third straight shutout. … The Mariners entered the weekend with a 7-10 record in interleague play. … Colorado selected the contract of catcher Tom Murphy from Triple-A Albuquerque prior to Friday’s game after clearing roster space by shifting catcher Nick Hundley to the 60-day disabled list. Hundley is recovering from a cervical strain.

ON TAP

The Mariners and Rockies continue their three-game weekend series at 6:10 p.m. Saturday at Safeco Field. Seattle left-hander Roenis Elias (4-8, 4.30) will face Colorado lefty Yohan Flande (3-2, 4.65). The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.

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