HOUSTON — Start with the good news: The King’s Court is nearly ready to reconvene.
Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez breezed through three simulated innings Wednesday afternoon as the final test in his recovery from a strained right calf muscle before departing for a two-start tuneup on a minor-league rehab assignment.
Hernandez said he felt "nothing" in his calf, which was the primary goal.
"It was pretty good to get back out there and facing hitters," he said. "Everything was fine. (I wanted) just to feel good and to not feel anything in my leg."
The plan now is for Hernandez to pitch four innings Sunday at Short-A Everett against Spokane (Rangers).
"We’ll see," Hernandez quipped. "They might be swinging. I might need seven innings to throw 60 pitches."
Manager Scott Servais was also upbeat if slightly more cautious.
"He looked pretty good," Servais said. "I didn’t think he was favoring his leg at all. His arm was working just fine. We’ll just keep moving ahead with the scheduled program that we have lined up.
"Sixty (pitches in Everett) might be a little aggressive. We’d like to get him up and down four times if we can."
Barring a setback, Hernandez is then scheduled to pitch July 15 at Triple-A Tacoma against Colorado Springs (Brewers), which puts him in line for a July 20 return to the Mariners against the Chicago White Sox at Safeco Field.
Hernandez was 4-4 with a 2.86 ERA in 10 starts before his injury forced him to the disabled list after a May 27 start against Minnesota. It is the longest absence of his 12-year career, but he sees a possible benefit.
"I think (my arm) is fresh," he said. "I can’t wait to get back out there. I was going crazy when I was home. Now that I’m here, I’m almost ready. So I’m happy."
WALKER TO SEE SPECIALIST
Now the not-so-good news: Right-hander Taijuan Walker is scheduled to see a foot-and-ankle specialist Sunday in North Carolina after continuing problems with tendinitis in his right foot forced his exit Tuesday after four ineffective innings.
The Mariners placed Walker on the 15-day disabled list prior to Wednesday’s series finale against the Astros in one of several roster moves.
"We just want to know what more it is and what I can do," Walker said. "We thought getting a shot and resting it would help. It felt good until I got back on the mound.
"I don’t want to sit out a month, thinking that’s going to help, and then get back on the mound and have the same thing happen. That’s just a waste of time."
Plans call for Walker to see Dr. Bob Anderson in Charlotte, N.C. Anderson previously treated former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and counts several other prominent pro athletes among his patients.
"I’ll see what he has to say and what my options are," Walker said. "Hopefully, it’s good news, and I’ll get back quick. It sucks not knowing. I mean I know what it is, but I don’t really know what I can do.
"I’ve tried resting it. It didn’t work. It would suck to try to pitch like this all year. It wouldn’t be fair to myself or the team to continue like this."
Walker first encountered the problem in a June 14 start at Tampa Bay. He made one more start before skipping a turn in the rotation. He returned June 30 against Baltimore and, while he pitched well, felt renewed discomfort.
"We do know what we’re seeing is not good," Servais said. "It’s not in his or our best interest to keep running him out there."
Walker’s problem is posterior tibial tendinitis, which is inflammation in the tendon that attaches the calf muscle to the bones on the inside of the right foot. The discomfort occurs when he pushes off the rubber in his delivery.
ZUNINO RETURNS TO TACOMA
Catcher Mike Zunino was optioned back to Triple-A Tacoma as part of Wednesday’s roster moves.
The Mariners also recalled lefty reliever David Rollins from Tacoma, activated catcher Jesus Sucre from the 60-day disabled list and recalled him to replace Zunino as the backup to Chris Iannetta.
To clear space for Sucre on the 40-man roster, the Mariners shifted injured catcher Steve Clevenger to the 60-day disabled list. Clevenger is recovering from a broken right hand.
Servais said the Sucre-for-Zunino swap stemmed from a desire for Zunino to continue to get regular playing time.
"Looking at our schedule," Servais said, "he was probably only going to play one game for us over the next eight-to-10 days. We talked way back in January, this season — the entire year — is going to be about what’s best for Mike Zunino.
"Sending him back, he gets to play four or five games down there, and then we’ll see where we’re at coming out of the break or shortly after that. He’ll be back. I feel good about that. I like the adjustments he’s made, and I told him that."
Zunino went 2-for-7 with two homers in two games since his June 30 recall.
Sucre, 28, returns to the big leagues after making a rapid recovery from a broken leg suffered Jan. 17 while playing winter ball in Venezuela. Initial expectations pointed to a late August return as a best-case scenario.
"I am surprised," he admitted. "I know a couple of guys who had the same injury, and it took eight, 10 or 12 months to get back. But in late May and June, I started catching a lot of bullpens in (Arizona), and it felt almost normal."
Sucre was 3-for-19 in five games at Tacoma on his rehab playing assignment. He batted .178 in 81 big-league games for the Mariners over parts of the last three seasons.
SPOT START FOR MONTGOMERY
Lefty reliever Mike Montgomery is the tentative choice to replace Walker in the rotation for Sunday’s game at Kansas City. A former starter, Montgomery pitched four shutout innings Tuesday after replacing Walker against the Astros.
"We stretched Montgomery for a reason," Servais said. "Given it’s the last day before the break, and you can empty the pen on that day, we’re probably going to go with Montgomery — which he wants to do, and he’s earned it."
Montgomery made his big-league debut last season by going 4-6 with a 4.60 ERA in 16 starts, but he shifted this spring to the bullpen when squeezed out of the rotation by other candidates.
The Mariners made the switch because Montgomery was out of options and would need to clear waivers to be sent to the minors.
Montgomery responded by compiling a 2.15 ERA in 30 relief outings. He currently has a streak of 10 2/3 scoreless innings over his last four appearances.
"After his second inning (Tuesday) night," Servais said, "I asked, `Do you want to start?’ He said, `You know I want to start.’ I said, `Then finish the game.’ He finished the game."
Double-A Jackson right fielder fielder Tyler O’Neill took a star turn Tuesday in preparation for his participation Sunday in the All-Star Futures Game at Petco Park in San Diego.
O’Neill, 21, hit a two-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning Tuesday that erased a two-run deficit at Tennessee (Cubs). He added an RBI single in the 11th inning that helped boost the Generals to a 6-4 victory.
This continues to be a breakout year for O’Neill, whom the Mariners selected in the third round of the 2013 draft. He is batting .303 with 15 homers and 63 RBIs in 79 games.
***Right-hander Zack Littell pitched six shutout innings Tuesday in his Hi-A debut for Bakersfield in an 8-0 victory over High Desert (Rangers). Littell was 5-5 with a 2.76 ERA in 15 starts at Lo-A Clinton prior to his promotion.
The Mariners selected Littell, 20, in the 11th round of the 2013 draft.
It was nine years ago Thursday — July 7, 2007 — that Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki became the first player to hit an inside-the-park homer in an All-Star Game.
Suzuki’s fifth-inning drive at AT&T Park in San Francisco came against future Mariners right-hander Chris Young, then with San Diego. It caromed away from once-and-future Mariners center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., then with Cincinnati.
The American League won the game 5-4, although then-Mariners closer J.J. Putz gave up two runs in the ninth inning. Suzuki was picked as the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Kyle Seager went 2-for-4 in Tuesday’s loss for his fifth multi-hit game in his last 11 starts. He also has 201 career multi-hit games, which matches Adrian Beltre for the most in franchise history by a third baseman…the Mariners entered Wednesday with an eight-game road losing streak, which left them a 21-21 away from home. They once had a 19-8 road record…the Mariners, through Tuesday, were 25-20 when Adam Lind starts at first base and 17-21 when Dae-Ho Lee starts at first base.
The Mariners begin their final pre-break series at 5:15 p.m. Pacific time Thursday with the first of four weekend games at Kansas City.
The opener offers match-up between two lefties: James Paxton (2-3 with a 4.24 ERA) and the Royals’ Danny Duffy (4-1, 3.11). The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners